Copyright 2001-2008, James J. Belcher.  All rights reserved.

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Copyright 2005 James J. Belcher.  All Rights Reserved. 

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   Laughing Last

 

      Chapter 1 

 

        John and Camilla existed in the smallest of worlds, with just themselves and their parents.  Everyone else hated them, or didn’t care.  They were the loneliest 11th-grade students attending Creighton Secondary College.  They had always been a couple, born just a few days apart to mothers who lived three doors from one another.  They were two best friends’ new babies, the ones who were constantly together and being compared.  They spent their entire school years together, always in the same grade in the same school, sometimes even side by side in the same class.  They planned on a joint secondary school graduation.

        When teenage years arrived and their classmates were pairing off, it only seemed natural they began dating.  Unlike their classmates, they never broke up.  John asked and Camilla accepted his proposal of marriage.  They were just seventeen.  She was hardworking and a good student, with mostly A’s on her transcript.  Considering the way her classmates treated her, this was no mean task; his marks were very slightly lower, again despite a handicap.  They planned on a marriage the week after graduation, a small ceremony at the clerk’s registry, merely a “nothing much” affair.  Like their graduation, it didn’t happen. 

        Whilst the two were socially and mentally joined at the hip almost from birth, they grew up as two very different people.  Camilla was a pretty baby, bright blue eyes and straw-coloured hair reminiscent of her Scandinavian forebears, a smile forever on her lips.  She was a large baby, nearly five kilos, and was nearly a metre tall at two years of age.  By grade 11, she stood over 190cm (almost 6’ 3”) in her bare feet (she never wore heels, even the shortest).  She was extremely buxom if admittedly obese, little appreciated due to her outsized proportions.  Through it all, mostly due to John, she was still smiling at age seventeen (if weakly) but no longer outgoing.  

        John was small, quiet, dark and somewhat ordinary looking, perhaps a throwback to his Mediterranean ancestors.  He was thin and wiry, a serious look on his face, forever appearing as if he’d come out the loser in a scrap with someone larger.  The two were an unlikely couple, with him standing a mere 160cm (5’ 3”).  To their classmates, he was Runt and she was Freak. 

        Nasty nicknames don’t set well on their victims, and there were more than a few times when the two seriously considered dropping out of school before they finally did.  Their parents allied with a “damn it all” insistence, hoping but mostly praying that something would come along and change things. 

        In a world without fairy godmothers and magic wands (or so we cynically believe), it’s up to each of us to make our own way in the world, and our two teenagers looked ahead at their prospects and tried to sort out what they could and would from what they couldn’t or wouldn’t. 

        John’s father Emilio was a master cabinetmaker, the owner of a successful small business.  His patient dedication to craft was blended with a certain flair and creativity, and he first became known for custom bookcases in solicitors’ offices.  Later his work was showcased in the mansions of Toorak as well as the focal point of upscale model homes all across Melbourne.  More recently, he’d expanded into teakwood fittings for elegant yachts in Melbourne harbour and custom furniture for the finest suites at five-star hotels.  Business was booming.  To outsiders, John was “good with his hands” and willing to use them.  The world would say a prosperous career in his father’s line was dangling in front of him.   

        Unbeknownst to those outsiders, as John’s father knew only so well, John’s hands were willing but there wasn’t the innate touch that turned the good into the extraordinary.  John could and would produce but never really create.  John knew it also and it’s a fact of life that he, like many, looked ahead to fifty years of being second-rate, always compared and judged inferior.  As graduation loomed, his classmates were considering careers and looking forward, but not John.  He dreaded the future. 

        To be honest, Camilla suffered from clinical depression, so worried and fed up and convinced of a bleak future that she couldn’t see herself enjoying much happiness as Mrs. John Lorenzo and none as Miss Camilla Johnson.  At least John’s father had a business to pass on; her father didn’t have that, and his business reeked of “good old boys” with only a niche or two for the token woman. 

        Early on, Camilla’s father, Greg Johnson (an earlier generation had shortened Johannson) was also a tradesman, an apprentice carpenter who fancied partnering with Emilio.  After working just a short while together, Greg recognized in Emilio a special man who deservedly could never share the stage with less than a perfectionist and an equal, and that was not Greg.  On a whim, he took a position with a small estates agent and quickly became a recognised salesman. 

        As the late-90’s Melbourne real estate boom exploded into sonic crescendos the first years of the new century, Greg became a partner in his firm, then a partner in a larger agency created by merger.  Still, that made him one senior partner out of twelve, in a firm with ninety associates and a total of six women, none of whom was particularly successful.  Those weren’t odds Camilla fancied and she knew she didn’t have the character that could swim in those shark-infested corporate waters.  No, she couldn’t see herself as a successful career woman, and John had confided in her as to his own feelings of inadequacy.  The unlikely couple was nothing more than two teenagers who felt sorry for themselves. 

            Growing up means puberty and self-awareness and unlocking the mysteries of the other sex; so it was for John and Camilla.  Still virgins but with lust in their hearts and minds, they’d stripped and embraced and kissed until they just managed to stop short.  John was the sort of kid who regularly flipped through the photo pages of men’s magazines in the newsagency, something more or less normal for boys his age, but the result wasn’t the customary. 

        “Cammie, you’re special and I can prove it!”  He proffered her a copy of the latest Raph. 

        “You’re crazy, if you expect me to look that that!” 

        “No, I mean it.  Look at all the so-called beautiful women with the supposedly fantastic bodies and see what I mean.” 

        She did so, rolling her eyes several times.  It took about a minute before she looked up.  “You’re full of shit, John.” 

        “No, I can’t believe you still don’t get it.  They’re flaunting bodies and they’re not like yours, but they’re flaunting boobs the most and yours are bigger than any of them.  The artificial tits on some of them just scream unnatural and yours are beautiful pillows on which to dream.” 

        “John, you’re sweet and that’s why I love you, but I don’t look like them.  They aren’t my height.” 

        “That’s what you don’t understand.  Most of those pictures are of them alone, and taken in a way you don’t know how tall they are.  A lot of them are really short, so short I would have to look down at them.  I’ve read the data and checked.  After all, Kylie’s under five feet, and she’s been called the most beautiful woman in the world.” 

        “Wake up, John.  I’m tall, not short and I don’t sing, act, play basketball or tennis.  I’m fat and ugly and- - -.”  She started to cry and he pulled her over and held her close to him. 

        “Cammie, last night I watched Extreme Makeover on the telly.  Those gals and guys are ugly – you’re not.  You have a pretty nose, eyes and hair.  Sure, you’d look better if you lost weight and then you’d need to have cosmetic surgery to nip off the unneeded skin and tuck all the parts together, but they can do that.  Neither of us has pretty teeth, but they can fix that.  If we work together, we can exercise and tone up, both of us.  There’s no money for the kind of Hollywood doctor fees like on that show, but at least it’d be a start.” 

        “You think it’d be worth it?  I’ve tried dieting.” 

        “Cammie, we’ve, as in us the team, have never tried dieting and exercise, but let’s find out what we can do together.” 

        Sometimes big things come from small steps. 

        Camilla said she wanted an effective diet and an Extreme Makeover.  A few days after her conversation with John, something unexpectedly entered through a passage behind one of life’s many backdoors.  No, John and Camilla hadn’t actually started that diet and exercise programme they discussed.   

        It was payback for a favour done by her father ten years earlier.  It came in the form of a telephone call to Greg’s office.  In 1994, he had convinced an Elsternwick doctor, Allan Weiszman, to buy an older property in Brighton.  It featured an exceptionally large allotment but a decaying edifice badly in need of expensive rehabilitation.  Given the grandeur of the original home, with its intricate handmade and antique finishes, it took a keen eye to reckon that it was a job that was even possible, much less how to go about the task.  Greg recommended a particular general contractor specialising in renovations of period homes and further insisted on the doctor’s hiring Emilio.  As he put it, the home needed “the special touch that will really bring the place alive”. 

        Dr. Weiszman, a cosmetic surgeon by profession, was thrilled with the results and soon hosted parties that lifted both Emilio’s and Greg’s business to new levels.  As for himself, he became the celebrated “Dr. Makeover”, a name on the tongues of models, celebrities and actresses.  Most recently, he swapped his estate in Brighton for a “90 square” [a term in vogue in the industry, denoting a number, which when multiplied by 10, gave a home’s area in square metres, in this case amounting to approximately 10,000 square feet] showplace in Toorak, the city’s most expensive suburb.  He loved his Bayside home, but he and his wife wanted to live where things were more friendly to Jewish doctors than the stiffness the matronly doyennes in Brighton would ever show him or Natasha. 

        During the process of negotiating this real estate swap, Dr. Makeover called in Greg Johnson for assistance.  When first telephoned, Greg reckoned it would be a “freebie” done in the name of public relations, but things developed into the most important transaction of Greg’s career. 

        Greg dutifully drove over to the Toorak consulting rooms of Allan Weiszman, M.D. and F.A.A.C.M. (Fellow of the Australian Academy of Cosmetic Medicine).  The elegant waiting room was a far cry from the old and dingy Elsternwick office his client utilised in 1994.  The original oil paintings and fresh bright handcrafted furniture bespoke a quiet but lavish atmosphere that settled on you like a mantle bestowed for an heroic feat.  Allan had (or bought) the best of taste. 

        It was six o’clock and, as suggested in the phone call, he walked into an empty chamber, but knowing the doctor would be out shortly.  It was deathly quiet after consulting hours; he thought he could just hear a familiar voice speaking on the telephone in the office behind the reception and to his left.  Then again, it might have been his imagination.  He sat down in one of the overstuffed Italian leather chairs, oblivious to the carved kauri coffee table and its collection of carefully stacked periodicals catering to the decidedly affluent. 

        Dr. Makeover (he loved that name) strode out to the reception with almost a swagger, a tall poppy in a country that relishes men like that getting cut down to size.  He was well above average height for a Jew of European descent, 183 cm, a tad over six feet, and his dark subdued pinstriped suits would forever shout “Expensive!”  He greeted Greg warmly and pumped his hand vigorously; a bystander wouldn’t know it had been several years since they had last met.  Before Greg could proffer even the most timid of protests, Allan escorted him into his private office, poured him a large Scotch, added two cubes of ice, and thrust it into Greg’s hand.  “Having one myself, a rare treat, but something special’s come about and it concerns you.  Have a seat, please.”   

        Greg took a seat in another Italian leather luxury item.  The doctor looked across an expansive desk with an “ate-the-canary” grin.  “Taxes can be a bitch, you know.  You recall Mort Fineberg, my CPA.  Remember how he counselled against my buying the Brighton place in my personal name?  Said a corporate owner would make it easier to write off interest, taxes and upkeep as entertainment and other business expenses?  Remember how you said to ‘Forget the chump change, save capital gains taxes later on?’” 

        “Well, I went against Mort’s advice, as you know.  He told me ‘Allan, goyims don’t know money, and believe me, I do.  I know your financial and tax situation and you’re going to be hocked to your eyeballs to buy this last-century Englishman’s extravaganza, so you’ll need the deductions.’  Greg, I didn’t tell you that.  At the time, $1.9 million with nearly another million in rehab, refurbishment, furnishings and landscaping was a pile of dollars mostly in my imagination.  I didn’t tell you that either, of course.  It was a heritage-designated property, so it couldn’t be subdivided and converted to units.  If you hadn’t pushed and Natasha hadn’t fallen in love with the place, I never would have gone through with the purchase.  To be honest however, it was Emilio’s work that transformed it so we have a real showplace.” 

        “Now it’s ten years later, and things have changed.  There’s no mortgage and I’ve added nearly another five hundred thousand of what we call trim work.  My mansion with its sweeping bay view from our upstairs suite is synonymous with luxury done Melbourne style.  People come up to Natasha and me at parties just to talk decorating.  I was offered $12 million for it back in June, fully furnished of course.  I turned it down.” 

        “Now there’s a sweeter deal on offer and Natasha and I want to accept, so here’s where you come in.  There’s an anxious American who bought a big block in Toorak, rased the existing structure and built 90 squares of Big Bucks Toorak.  It’s on St. Georges Road, 98% complete, paid for in cash all through construction, the lot.  But he’s from Texas and has bigger ideas.  He passed by my place a couple of weeks ago, just driving along the Esplanade, looking up.  He liked what he saw and wants it.  He offered to swap me even, citing an appraisal of nearly $18 million for his place.  Since I took your advice, I’ll pay no taxes.  That’s three million better than Mort’s wisdom would have done for Natasha and me.” 

        “So we want to thank you, but I want your advice.  Talk with the guy, who incidentally had the nerve to send decorators to my place yesterday afternoon, virtually unannounced, and we don’t even have anything in writing, nothing final at all.  As I said, he’s anxious, hoping to move in within sixty days and doing everything by phone from Houston.” 

        It was Greg’s turn.  “You’re right, and I was right.  No matter how great, nothing lasts forever and I knew your place would turn into a jackpot when you sold.  After all, there’s no tax on profit from the sale of your principal residence.  By the way, $3 million in savings is way out of my league, but is there anything in this new deal for me?” 

Allan was stunned that Greg had been so forthright, a quality he never attributed to the lanky Swede.  He thought a minute. 

“You have a daughter, don’t you?  I remember a gorgeous little blonde from back in ’94, tall for her age, really cute, maybe a little chubby.” 

        “Allan, we’re on the same wavelength.  That’s a real story in itself.  Camilla’s still pretty in my eyes, but she’s very overweight and has a low opinion of herself.  Most importantly, she’s now 190cm and still growing.  The kids call her Freak – you know how tough kids can be.  She’s got a boyfriend, nice kid but short, five feet three – he’s been dubbed Runt.  They’re looking to get married next year, after their graduation.  I’ve known John – that’s her fiancée – since he was an infant.  His parents are close friends of ours.  Like all parents, we want the best, and maybe that’s where you come in, an extreme makeover, really two, the works.” 

        He paused.  Greg knew enough from the reality TV series to consider what he’d said.  It was a tough ask, maybe a couple of hundred thousand, but the before-and-after scenes on the TV made it a request that might mean a happy ending.   

        Allan shook his head.  “Greg, there are some things that we can’t do.  I can’t make your daughter shorter or her fiancée taller.  I can put her onto a physical trainer for weight reduction and muscle toning, straighten her nose or increase her bust line-.” 

        Greg interrupted with a chuckle.  “No need there, she’s got plenty, maybe too much.”   

        Allan smiled.  “Even better.  I can reshape her bust and make it more attractive.  I have hair stylists, make up artists, wardrobe experts, just like the TV series.  I work with a cosmetic dentist.  And once the weight comes off, she may need a tuck or two.  As for John, I generally don’t do much with men, particularly younger men.  Macho attitude, you know – they get reconstructive work after motorcycle accidents, something I don’t do.” 

        Greg again.  “OK.  No cutting corners, the lot, from the wardrobes to the manicures.  You give me the number of your Texan and I’ll cut a deal with money for furnishing.  Would a million do it?” 

        “Greg, anything would be welcome, but don’t queer the deal or Natasha will cut my head off.”  He winked.  “She’s so anxious she can taste it.  And if we don’t move to Toorak and St. Georges Road, I’m not sure if she wouldn’t cut both heads off, little one first.” 

        Greg laughed.  “Just give me a number.” 

        Later that night, Greg called.  That one phone call was all he needed. 

        It was thirty minutes past midnight Melbourne time; it was 7:30am in Houston, seventeen hours earlier.  A private number rang and a phone was quickly picked up.   

        “Hello?” 

        “Frank Carruthers?  This is Melbourne calling.” 

        “Yeah, who?” 

        “Greg Johnson, friend of Allan Weiszman.” 

        “Yeah.  Lawyer, CPA, what?” 

        “Estate agent, but I’m calling as his friend to seal the deal.  I don’t get a cent, God’s honest truth.” 

        Laughter on the other end.  “Real estate salesman who works for nothing?  Do you sell used cars on the side?”    

        Greg sounded indignant. [Must all Americans be so offensive?]  “No, just a friend.  I’ve got a proposition that you and your solicitors can get down in writing.” 

        “Fire away.”

        “The doctor’s selling furnished; he wants furnished.  Or the cash to furnish, take your pick.” 

        “Cash, I can’t wait and I’m not about to write blank checks for every designer with a dream.” 

        “Two million.” 

        “Whoa, I’m from Texas and that’s not chump change even for Houston.  Look here, say one million and we quit haggling.” 

        “Split the difference and I’ll have an E-mail from an Australian solicitor confirm things in the morning, a firm contract within 24 hours.  Deal?” 

        “Done.” 

        “Congratulations.” 

        So much for Greg’s efforts.  As he always said, big guns get things done quickly.   

        Allan and Natasha were rapt.  Greg was demonstrably proud of himself, and Millie was only upset there was no cash involved.  [“You know how those rich Jewish doctors practically mint the stuff and we’re still living in Creighton.  After all, he can afford it, and think of the taxes you saved him.  But after all, if Camilla comes away from this like those gals on the telly, it’s worth it.”] 

        Greg and Millie only wanted the best but there were two more minds to consult, the ones on the most affected bodies.  For a moment, they imagined Muriel’s Wedding. 

        Of course, that was not to be.  When Greg handed her the business card of the celebrated cosmetic surgeon, she screamed for joy, proclaimed him the “best Daddy in the world” and immediately called John to tell him the news. 

        Allan’s home phone number and mobile were handwritten entries on the back of that card.  He had advised Greg to have Camilla call him that evening. 

        Of course Camilla did so, and it was a call that worried Dr. Makeover.  He frankly didn’t want his other patients to even see Camilla, “Cammie” as her parents called her.  She would stand out in the reception, perhaps have features he furtively told his p.a. were “incurably ugly”.  Besides, she was a minor, just 17, an age where looks are all-important.  Cosmetic surgeons can’t guarantee personal satisfaction, disgruntled parents sue and complain to the press and teenagers can be the hormonally stressed patients every doctor rues.

        Cammie was suprised such a famous physician would see her so quickly.  He made sure she’d be in and out before any of his regular bookings.  As a special precaution, he called one of his long-term staff nurses and arranged for her to be there at 7:45am.  Like most surgeons, he operated two or three days a week, beginning with 8:00am procedures; he saw patients at his surgery offices the other days and the following day was thankfully one of those. 

        He’d last seen her as a bubbly seven-year-old.  Now she was an obese 190- centimetre Amazon called Freak.  God knows what he was dealing with.  Besides, she was a minor, parental consent required (Millie would be there, he convinced Cammie of the need for that, no possible claims of abuse or other crap) and cosmetic surgery comes without one personal satisfaction guarantee, much less patient and parent both.  All in all, he was glad the next day was one of the two per week that entailed only surgery consultations and no procedures.  He could have a splitting headache just from seeing the extreme makeover to end all.