Excerpt from the novel Arnold and Joe
There had evidently been some planning for what Joe insisted on calling The Bachelor Party. Arnold understood he was to be the best man, but Joe had not talked about this arrangement again with him since an offhand mention of it on their grumpy phone call, when he’d rung Arnold in Sydney to check if he planned to attend the wedding. Arnold had not considered the possibility that he might have been usurped in his official role, and he was very surprised not to have been consulted about the bachelor event. He hadn’t made any firm plans of his own, mostly because Joe had not been clear about roles and responsibilities. But he had plenty of ideas. There were any number of things they could do, look at all the fun they had together in Amsterdam for goodness sake.
Joe was no clearer as he outlined some of the details over breakfast at the Sea Coast Inn. Arnold had a screaming misery of a hangover. He resisted an urge to order a Bloody Mary. He was pleased he had because they were soon joined by Lisa’s brother Tom. Arnold hadn’t met Tom at the previous evening’s party. He wanted Tom to be an Ivy League jock-type, the cardboard cut-out his film required. But despite the button-down shirt and the camel-coloured pants, he was imperfect in his role. Arnold couldn’t point to where Tom was letting himself down exactly; perhaps it was just his face, that it was too soft and feminine.
He watched Tom and Joe as they spoke. They seemed excited, yet also very efficient and managerial. Joe and Arnold would drive with Tom to Boston, where they’d pick up two friends of Joe’s flying in from Europe. Jorge and Sylvain were from Spain and France respectively, and Arnold had not met them before. They might have been new friends, for Arnold had not recently been in Joe’s loop. They might have been old friends of Joe’s not known to him when he too knew Joe. By the time he got through breakfast he was wondering whose loop he had ever been looped into. It emerged that Joe knew Jorge and Sylvain through business school, a course for promising young executives that they’d taken together somewhere in France.
In Boston, they would also pick up someone Joe described as an old friend from England, whose name was Barry. Joe said he did not know Barry especially well, and when Arnold enquired further he learned Barry was the son of a close friend of Joe’s mother’s. So Joe did not seem to know Barry in any personal knowing sense, beyond the tenuous connection through their friendly mothers. In fact, the underlying foundation of their new friendship was again built around the business school theme, if you could arrange friendships on thematic lines – and as the morning went on Arnold had stopped doubting it was possible – because it emerged that Joe had recently applied to get into Harvard Business School, where Barry was also a graduate student.
– Jonty’s old alma mater, Joe said. Remember, Auntie?
Auntie did remember, for Jonty was Auntie’s good friend. He was surprised to hear that Jonty had now become a friend of Joe’s too. Joe had consulted Jonty extensively, it was revealed. Both Barry and Jonty were supplying references for Joe in his efforts to get into said alma mater.
After the airport and campus pickups the plan was to drive up through New Hampshire and Maine. Tom said, in an ominously cheerful tone, that his father planned to meet them in a town in New Hampshire, the name of which Arnold failed to pick up. Arnold hoped the father would not be overnighting with their party, as charming as he might have been when they met at the previous night’s gathering.
Finally, Joe’s Russian friend Igor was hoping to make it in time for the planned second night at a hotel near the ski resort of Sugarloaf, close to the Canadian border, taking the group of men to seven, or perhaps eight, depending on Lisa’s father’s decision, by the climactic night of the bachelor party. They’d all return to Cape Cod the next day, the day before the climax of the wedding itself.
It had been Lisa’s father, Lionel, who’d encouraged Joe to build the bachelor event around a gentle drive through New Hampshire and into Maine, taking in a corner of Vermont. According to Tom, his father had said the bachelors would find it ‘most memorable’ if they were to see the fall ‘turn’ of the leaves. Watching leaves undergo their autumnal transformation seemed to lack in festive bachelor promise. Arnold tried to be picked up and carried along in the river of optimism.
Joe had spoken little to Arnold since he arrived. Was he taking delight in continuing to ignore him? Arnold was no more reassured as they exited the dining room of the Sea Coast Inn, when Tom let slip that the autumnal leaf turning was in part a ruse, the real purpose behind their itinerary being one of his father’s ‘secret passions.’ Joe smiled at this. Arnold worried about Joe’s smile, and about secret passions, and about much else that he couldn’t particularise.
– Joe’s got quite enthusiastic about re-enactments too, haven’t you Joe? Tom said.
Joe smiled again – Arnold couldn’t tell if he was smiling shyly, or slyly – while Tom explained that his father, along with his fellows in the 6th New Hampshire Infantry Company E, also known as ‘The Bully 6th,’ was a great ‘re-enactment aficionado,’ taking part in mock battles recreating scenes from the American Civil War.
Returning to his room to pack, Arnold celebrated the success of the breakfast planning meeting by drinking a very decent part of a quart of vodka. At ten am he left with Joe and Tom on the drive to John Logan Airport in Boston.
Perhaps he should have engaged Joe in another talk about his drinking; how he suspected Joe might have been right in what he used to say about him, that alcohol was not always his greatest friend.
But Joe wasn’t talking to him, unless it was to issue terse little instructions. When they picked up Jorge and Sylvain, Arnold was ordered by Joe to carry their bags, then openly berated for failing to bring the parking ticket from the vehicle so they could pre-pay, even though it was Tom who was driving and whose responsibility it clearly should have been. Joe was bullying him like a little slave, as if he were Douglas, Lisa’s old family retainer or butler. If you hadn’t known better, you wouldn’t have realised he and Joe were even friends. There’d still been no talk about Arnold’s best man status in the wedding party.
The first night in a hotel just outside Boston was very bad. Joe fed his new-found addiction to American light beers, as Barry talked endlessly about his aspirations when he finished his MBA programme, principal among which was to join the staff of Colgate Palmolive. Joe said he too was hoping to move from advertising into a management role at a multinational.
– The light bulb came on, Joe said. He now saw something important, he told them in the bleak hotel bar as a piano tinkled. Yes, the future really is fast-moving consumer goods.
Before leaving the hotel the next day, the large party of men: six now including Barry, Jorge and Sylvain – with Lisa’s father Lionel plus Igor to join them later – drove in Tom’s car to Dunkin’ Donuts. Arnold assumed Jorge or Sylvain had suggested the venue, seeking some exotic American novelty. But it was Joe who had insisted, having developed a hearty taste for the franchise and its cooking. Fortunately, Arnold had made sure to fill his water bottle with most of the contents of an additional bottle of vodka before leaving his hotel room. After they exited Dunkin’ Donuts to begin the drive through New Hampshire, Arnold drank from his bottle in secret sips.
En route, someone had the bright idea of playing the international farmyard animal noises game, an entertainment Arnold had not previously encountered. When it got to his turn he was feeling a bit fuzzy, failing to remember the noise the rooster made in New Zealand, so he told them it was Karou-tarou.
– Seriously? Joe said. That surprises me, I’d have thought it was the same in all English-speaking countries. That it’d be the same words as ours.
– What do your roosters say then, in England? Sylvain asked.
– Cock-a-doodle-doo, Tom told him. Just like we do here in the States.
Arnold assured them it was not at all the same where he lived, repeating that in New Zealand roosters went Karou-tarou. He laughed like an insane person. A rooster crowed, he knew that for certain.
As Jorge gave them the Spanish (Kiki-something-ri, or that might have been the French) Arnold felt odd. He wondered if it was the drunkenness or if his brain was getting damaged in other ways. He trusted that it was just a reaction to his good friend, his closest friend Joe, getting hitched.
They stopped at a small town for lunch, where they were joined, as promised, by Lisa’s father Lionel. By this stage Arnold was feeling good, really good, and quite excited to see a new face. Lionel told Arnold he had not once enrolled on an MBA programme. No one was prepared to join Arnold in drinking the bottle of red wine he knew he must order, not even Lionel, and Joe and Jorge and Sylvain were drinking light American beer and he wasn’t sure what the others were drinking, it might have been milk. Joe looked across at Arnold, he was probably wondering if it was wise to order the wine.
– You’ll help me drink it, Joe. You always do help me with stuff, because we love each other.
Joe told him again that he was happy with his light beer, and he didn’t say he loved him back. No one seemed to mind either way about that.
Arnold ordered the red wine anyway. It was very agreeable.
He slept in the car on the way to somewhere he couldn’t be sure of, guessing only that their destination had something to do with Lionel’s secret passion. When he awoke things had started to get blurry. He tried to help this with a few more sips from his water bottle, before going back to sleep.
Arnold must have remained sleeping in the car when they got to somewhere else again. He awoke very suddenly at the noise of a cannon being let off. He was not wearing any trousers, but he did not know why this was. He went outside the car and found Lionel wearing a blue beret with gold insignia, and he told Lionel that people were trying to shoot at the car, but this was the first time he realised Lionel was himself a soldier. Lionel told Arnold he was re-enacting an historical event but Arnold told him to get away from him and to please order his men to stop firing their cannon at the car, he was trying to sleep. He was on his way back to New Zealand, he added, after Joe got married, hoping the soldiers might let him have safe passage back to his parents. Lionel asked him where were his trousers and he said he’d left them back in his house in Sydney, he hadn’t seen the need to bring trousers to fight in another country.
Joe came and put him in the car then and he held the door shut so Arnold couldn’t get out, preventing him from stopping Lionel from returning to Cape Cod to shoot any more people at the wedding with his cannon.
Then they drove somewhere else. He was feeling very lonely in the car, despite being surrounded by male bodies. He heard Tom sounding worried about the state of him, like Arnold wasn’t even there in the car to hear Tom say it, which he very much was and could. Barry said it was probably nothing to worry about. Barry was basically right, he’d be fine. But one of the Euro guys propped him up a bit better, Arnold felt some hands lifting under his armpits briefly, before those hands disappeared and he slumped right back down again.
They were driving in the mountains after that, there were trees on all sides. There were no more soldiers around and Joe had told him not to have anything more to drink but Joe didn’t know about the vodka in the water bottle, then he was sick down the outside of the car, some of it catching on the inside armrest, which he wiped off with his face when he lay on it to try to sleep again, and then they took him to what they said was a hotel but he knew it was the cave base of the Bully 6th regiment in the mountains, and it had a spa pool outside where there were more soldiers. And then Joe put him in bed in the cave base, but Arnold got up again, but he wasn’t sick, and from the window he saw Joe going to the spa pool with the other soldiers. Igor had arrived now, and he’d joined the Bully 6th regiment too, even though Igor’s father had been a communist back in Russia, he remembered that, so it was interesting, all the fresh developments. Arnold remembered the name for what roosters do it wasn’t Karou-Tarou, Joe was right it was Cock-a-Doodle Doo, so he went back down to the spa pool to tell them the news, and then everything went quite blank and he lost the name for the rooster noise again on his way down the stairs. He moved towards the spa pool and Igor and the Spaniard had Joe upside down over the water. He didn’t want them holding his friend upside down and Joe’s pants were down around his upside down ankles, maybe he’d left the pants behind in another country, and there was his big cock, and someone saw Arnold then and said watch out he’s got out of his room. And then he wanted to take a shit but he hadn’t done it in the spa pool but he’d not shat his pants, so it was hard to tell. And then he walked towards the spa pool and he grabbed Joe’s cock as he hung there, held up by the other bad soldiers, held up over the water upside down.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Luke Elworthy, who lives in Blenheim, completed an MA in Creative Writing at the IIML in 2014. When he began work on his novel Arnold and Joe – a story of a close and often obsessive friendship between two men – he wanted to write a ‘manly romantic thriller’.