Arnold Sinclair befriended me on the first day at my new school. I had only lasted one term at my previous school before my mother pulled me out after a row with my father which had ended with him lowering his eyes again, and becoming silent. I found it awkward, what with Arnold being so friendly and me anxious about fitting in with the main crowd, because I quickly realised that he was unpopular.
When I had established myself sufficiently to get some straight answers from that main crowd, I attempted to find out exactly what it was about Arnold besides little things like his fruity pronunciation and the way his school uniform still looked immaculate at the day’s end, that invited scorn. But nobody could or would tell me. They exchanged knowing looks, flicked the ash off their cigarettes, laughed mirthless laughs, and said things like: ‘Jesus, the kid Sinclair! What do you want to hang around with that cunt for?’
‘Well just tell me what’s wrong with him for fuck’s sake!’ I said, exasperated. ‘What’s the fucking great secret?’
I was big for my age, and training well with the football squad. I shared my smokes. I got the cuts as often as anybody else in my class. But I was still given no explanation other than ‘You’ll find out’, and I felt uneasy about the way I joined in the sneering when others were around, yet treated Arnold reasonably if we were alone. I still find it difficult to be distant towards people who are friendly, even when I don’t have enough trust to develop the friendships. This sometimes adds to my problems.
Nobody ever did tell me what was wrong with Arnold but I gradually came to realise that he was someone whose external charm only worked on a certain type of person. For others he seemed to possess an innate repellent factor.
We caught the school bus at the same stop, and my mother met him when she dropped me off there. He oozed good manners of an old-fashioned kind that had my mother gushing in response. He sounded more like one of our teachers than a schoolboy. That was the start of my mother’s exhortations. Unlike my father, Arnold’s father was successful, and his mother wrote the column about our area in the local newspaper. My mother regularly referred to these facts. She, who had always disapproved of my mates (who, I admit, behaved like trainee gangsters) began urging me to invite ‘that polite Sinclair boy’ home on the weekends. Why couldn’t I be more like him? she wanted to know.
I wanted to tell her that Arnold was desperate to be accepted by the type of rough kids she despised, tell her with triumph in my voice, but I didn’t. I couldn’t allow her access to any part of my adolescent world. She didn’t even know I smoked.
At school we had a smokers’ club. We met at pre-arranged times during recess or when we wagged a period, usually in the bushes surrounding the football oval which was part of the schoolgrounds. We all had tobacco tins and we would crouch under cover, watching for stalking teachers sniffing the air as we smoked and bullshitted, passing around just the one cigarette if that was all we had, and sharing a kind of guerilla camaraderie as if we were acting the parts of rebel soldiers in a film about war, wearied from holding out against the enemy, but still nonchalant.
Arnold, who was in the cadets, a straight outfit despised by our group, kept pestering me to make inquiries about him joining the smokers’ club, to put in a good word for him with the others. He always had money, and he assured me he would be generous with his cigarettes. When I had first mentioned Arnold’s request I had been roared down so vehemently that I pretended it was just a joke. Then I had listened to stories of some of his earlier attempts to weasel his way into the charmed circle, this platoon of which I was now a central part.
I’m not sure why I broached the subject again after such a refusal but I think it was because of the wickedness in me. This time I was ready for their snorts of derision. I reminded them of his money and all the free smokes it would mean. They said having him around wasn’t worth even a free carton every week. I could see the sense of this so I added that we could have a bit of fun by leading him on, taking his smokes, then turfing him out. That caught their interest.
I don’t remember whose idea the final plan was. I don’t think it was mine. I hope it wasn’t my idea. I know I played the Judas role, luring him to the boys’ toilet where I had told him he was to be initiated into the club. He had his application fee – a large amount of cigarettes – and he wore his ingratiating smile, but with a hint of cockiness, a smug look I have come to associate with him.
‘What do I have to do?’ he asked several times once we were inside the toilet. I could tell he was nervous, and I guessed his nervousness was caused as much by wagging the period after lunch as it was by his impending initiation.
He was told to hand over the agreed amount of cigarettes to each of us, and to keep his stupid voice down. Out came packets of cigarettes and whispered apologies from Arnold. He was swaggering and laughing too much as he was told to light up and we each did the same. I had a crazy urge to instruct him, to tell him how to act in a situation like this, but I knew this feeling was just caused by embarrassment. Someone told him to do the drawback and hold it until he was given the command to let the smoke out.
Of course, nobody said anything and he ended up coughing after keeping the smoke in for a commendable time. We all laughed and the mood was lightened. Like a fool, Arnold laughed too, still spluttering, and said: ‘Is that all? Heck, that’s nothing. I thought there’d be more to it.’
Several boys mimicked his use of the word ‘heck’ and one said suddenly: ‘Now get your cock out,’ and everyone fell silent.
‘What?’ said Arnold, his voice rising in incredulity and dismay.
‘You heard. Get your old fellow out and give us a look at it.’
This is when I wanted him to say something like: ‘Get your own dick out and shove it up your arse, rat-breath,’ but I reminded myself that crawlers like Arnold could never speak like that, didn’t deserve to be able to. Instead, he said: ‘Don’t be silly. Get my cock out? Just like that? And flash it in front of everybody?’
‘You wanted to join. That’s what we all had to do.’
‘Did you?’ he asked, turning to me.
‘Yeah,’ I lied.
‘O.K. fellows, suit yourselves. But I tell you, I feel pretty stupid doing this.’
So you ought to, I thought as we all shuffled towards him, blowing the tips of our cigarettes into glowing points as he fumbled with his fly buttons. Surprised scorn and amusement were the expressions on the faces of my mates. Arnold showed us his penis for a second and immediately began stuffing it back inside his trousers, saying: ‘There you go. Satisfied?’
Everybody protested at once, telling him he had to get his cock right out and hold it in his hand while we had a good look. I had caught just a glimpse of his big brown circumcised penis.
Out it flopped again, along with a dramatic sigh from Arnold. Somebody said: ‘Now!’ and we all pounced, trying to stub out our cigarettes on poor Arnold’s exposed flesh.
I don’t think many struck their target because he crouched and covered himself with a swiftness I didn’t think he possessed. I know my cigarette missed. What I don’t know is if I meant it to miss. Sparks flew, at least one of my mates burnt his own hand, and Arnold howled like a wounded wolf as we scattered, shrieking with nervous laughter.
Arnold was never admitted to the smokers’ club but he still maintained clandestine contact with most of us. He used to commission us to steal bicycle parts for him. If he needed a dynamo set or a seat or handlebars, any part he needed, but never the whole bicycle which might be recognised later, he would give one of us specific instructions including the price he would pay, and we would steal it for him. He put all of these parts together and sold them as complete bicycles.
I went to his home just the once, raising my mother’s futile hopes as I was to do many times before settling down later than most people do, and he told me he enjoyed assembling the bicycles in his father’s big workshop, and that he could never risk stealing anything. I think he addressed his father as ‘sir’, when he introduced me, but his voice was so muffled I couldn’t be sure.
My mother always seems suspicious of my late-won quietude – she favours sayings like ‘a leopard never changes its spots’ – and one recent afternoon we were bickering politically, as usual. My old wickedness rose belatedly from deep inside me where I thought I had suppressed it, and I finally set her straight about her polite Arnold Sinclair, told her of his little Fagin-style business in the past. She said nothing, just fixed me with the look she used when berating my father for his failures, and then she got up and walked away.
I could never admit to my mother what we did to Arnold, and whenever I saw his name in the newspaper, or his smiling earnest face on television, with his hair still sticking up the way it did when he was a boy, as he lectured us about tough decisions he was forced to make on our behalf, or the benefits resulting from the promotion of motor sports, or licensed gambling, or people having had it too easy for too long, I imagined his big brown penis, its blisters still suppurating, sullied, dishonourable, like my long-ago betrayal.