Being an only pupil, like an only child, means that you’ll be spoilt. You get away with things. For me, in Latin lessons, this meant cheating. I know. I was only cheating myself – well, me and Freaky.
The old chap left the room a lot, even during tests. As soon as he shuffled out, I got a dictionary and looked up the words I didn’t know. I needn’t have bothered. I was, ipso facto, coming top. I cheated for the sake of it, because I could. After one of these tests, I told another boy about the dictionary. He swivelled his lips in pleasure, and said, like a compliment, “Spaid, you’re basically dishonest.”
Outwitting sir was not merely right, it was obligatory. I didn’t realise then, but Freaky was outwitting me. He had his own deceptions, like everybody else, and walking out of class was one of them. I assumed he had a reason, other than just wanting to escape. Important teacher business. He never told me why he left, but he would have had excuses for himself. The lessons were a favour from the start. He was giving up his free time for me, a single pupil, when he needn’t have. Besides, he didn’t think I’d misbehave. What could one boy do? One spineless boy. In Freaky's class, I never misbehaved, not openly. Freaky didn’t, either. I thought he was spineless too. In short, we undervalued each other, and lived in harmony.
On certain mornings, we had assembly in the hall. The whole school was there. I say we and whole, but I arrived late and missed it, deliberately. I set my alarm so I had no chance of waking up in time. It felt good in the empty school. The spaces looked different without any boys. The best part was knowing they were there, invisible, in ranks in the hall. A thousand boys had acquiesced, and I wasn’t one of them.
I had never been caught, and I was getting careless. Once, when Freaky’s lesson was after assembly, other people’s assembly, I strolled up to class to wait for him. When he padded in and saw me, he looked surprised. The masters left the hall before the boys. He had come straight up. How could I have got there before him?
His surprise was, well, surprising. There was never much emotion on his face. I looked at him more closely. The moustache I knew. There was no surprise there. It was identical each day, and didn’t seem to grow. It was hair in a portrait, or fixed on every morning like a medal. It was trim, dry thatch where birds couldn’t go. It was, in fact, a replica of Arthur Conan Doyle’s in the photograph from 1907.
We trusted each other, me and Freaky, when we shouldn’t have. The time he found me waiting in his room, it waved a red flag in his head. I must have skipped assembly. There was no other explanation. He stared at me. I had never seen him so alert. Somewhere on his face, along with the surprise, I saw the first doubt. Perhaps I wasn’t so spineless after all.
He asked me if I’d gone to assembly. I said yes, but you couldn’t fool Freaky. He persisted. He asked me what the Head had talked about. There was a new theme each day to interest, then edify, the boys. I paused before I answered, as if regretting what I had to say: “I don’t listen all that closely.”
Freaky relaxed, and muttered in his old, sheepish way, “I don’t either.”