The moment we realised Matt Lamb Junior was going to be our leader was when he turned the tables on the demented bully kid in our class, Jakeyboy. Jakeyboy had this thing he loved doing – sticking his finger up his butt and forcing everyone to smell his finger by jamming it in people’s noses, progressing from the back of the class up to the front while the teacher was off running errands and class was unattended.
Jakeyboy was pulling the stinkfinger on everyone one Tuesday when he arrived at Matt Lamb’s desk and put the finger right up in Matt’s nostril. We were all seven years old and hardwired into a circuit of silliness. Jakeyboy’s finger went up Matt Lamb Junior’s nostril. Matt didn’t flinch. He looked in the eye of the pale skinned, googly-eyed bully and calmly said, ‘Smells like your mum.’
A torrent of laughter flooded our eardrums. Kids were getting out of their chairs and falling to the ground in hysterics. Jakeyboy began flinching, looking over his shoulder at the accusers.
He tried to reclaim his position with a threat. ‘You’re dead.’
Matt coolly folded one knee over the other, laced his fingers behind his head and eased back in his chair. ‘If I’m dead, why you talkin to a zombie?’
It was the sassiest comeback any of us had ever heard. Already popular because his mum was sexy and he was allowed to watch R-rated movies and because he always had chewy fruit snacks in his lunch so amazingly packaged they were almost futuristic, Matt Lamb now had a non-stick coating. The rest of us would have to eat shit occasionally, but not Matt Lamb.
At eight, he ran the cross-country race backwards, not merely going the wrong way around the track – he ran the thing moving his body in reverse, glancing over his shoulder every ten seconds to stay on track. It was the funniest thing since Smells Like Your Mum.
At nine, Matt Lamb Junior contributed to the school newsletter, labelling a photograph of Principal Finlayson standing beside the new, three story tall war monument with the legend, ‘Finlayson shows off his erection.’
At ten, Matt Lamb was forcing girls to enter puberty more quickly so they could supply him with thrills. He kissed them in the pool. He convinced them to pull down their swimsuits and show him their nips. The most daring thing that year was convincing Missy Chrissy Townsend to donate her bra to him (she was a big mature girl in a wheelchair who’d been held back a year.) Matt strapped Missy Chrissy Townsend’s bra around his belly and charged each of us fifty cents for a peek. We imagined we saw milkstains on it, perhaps a curl of pubic hair, and it smelled like marriage and kitchens and wedding dresses and aprons. Matt brought us artifacts from the future.
Eleven and twelve, Matt was getting other kids to do stuff for him. Ajarn The Ape-Man From Borneo was tasked with climbing to the top of the water tower and pissing off it; Cedric Chang was selected by Matt to write his This Day In History speech in Igpay Atlinay. Cedric’s jellyfish parents – forever fearful of being sent back to Indonesia – scolded and beat Cedric in the parking lot. The police were called. Everybody looked to Matt to see if they should be thrilled, terrified or aroused.
Thirteen was the turning point. Parties were suddenly amplified, hardwired into the rest of the world. No more little islands of originality. At our parties, you had to get with somebody. And there had to be beer. Everyone was suddenly playing Spin The Bottle. It began in Matt Lamb’s basement and whatever happened at Matt Lamb’s would spread. The hair his mum had once desperately shorn short was now erupting down his head. His curls were thick tight blonde cylinders like tater tots, freakish hair no other kid would dare pull off. For his hair, we loved him.
Kids with parents in gangs looked to him for the skills to relate to losers. Lambo, we called him. MLJ. Big Junior. Matty June. Nerds and geeks wanted to know how they could stare someone like Jakeyboy in the face and say real-life Schwarzenegger shit. Girls wanted to date Matt. They didn’t want anything to do with his mum, of course. She had an unsmiling face with tiny lips and fierce eyes, ringed with black like she was confronting you from some hole you’d caught her in. People said her spine was fused, she walked so upright, spine backwards, tits beaming out like Batsignals. A short woman with a head of blonde that didn’t seem to belong to her, Mrs Lamb was a brushstroke of elegance born from some grimy English slum. A smoker, a driver of expensive, wasteful cars. A buyer of monthly sneakers and basketball caps for her son. Always unimpressed, always shopping.
Fourteen, Matt was dressing years ahead of us. He wore a bandana to the exact day that bandanas burst into the mainstream – and dropped his bandana that very afternoon. He got to Rubix Cubes before they got to us, and Chatter Rings, plus he knew yo-yo tricks. He taught us how to glue our McDonald’s trays to the tabletops with ketchup. He showed us how to get lifetime free refills at Burger King by buying a single 99 cent cup, folding the cup down to the size of a postage stamp and cramming the cup between the cushions of the vinyl booth where no cleaner would ever remove it. All you had to do each time at BK was pull the cup out of its secret location and unfold it.
His paper planes were stealth bombers. His boogers were flicked effortlessly into the backs-of-heads of kids in front of us. We got glimpses inside his mum’s car, a Jaguar with white leather seats and nothing but Van Halen on the stereo, then Van Halen went out of style and it was nothing but Boys II Men.
We were goths, briefly, ages 15 and 16, but obsessed with the freaks of wrestling, which of course led to weights and protein powder and the high school gym and a genuine obsession with bulk. Biceps were what it was all about – a man’s most obvious, GI Joe-ish muscles force-fed until they looked like balloon animals. Matt Lamb was just regular enough in the gym to earn belonging, but he never sacrificed cool.
He was dating Gemma Lancaster at the time. Gemma Skankass-ter, as we called her (when she wouldn’t put out) had the sexiest eyes in school, that was indisputable. Those eyes were bright opals which – if you turned from the front of the class to the back – would entrance you, instantly (like Matt’s mum’s eyes.) Her body mutated constantly, with silver hair and black leather one month morphing to red the next month with neon and highlighter tights. She had her leopard print phase, her denim phase, her manga phase, with the black to make her eyes huge. Piercings appear in her eyebrows, her lips, her tongue, her nostrils. Her mouth, too, was full of nothing but swear words and scorn. Gemma pledged to despise everything – except Matt Lamb, of course. She was lucky to have him as a prize. Matt was untouchable, and she knew she should never take him for granted.
Gemma Skankasster accompanied Matt to the occasional gym dropoff, though she never had any place in the gym – she disdained sports and preferred cigarettes and vodka, which of course made her ten times sexier. She’d guide him in then go wait in the parking lot in her car. Most of Matt’s workout session would consist of chestbumps and hugs and wassups. Matt never broke a sweat. He’d hoist weights above his head, hold them and crack jokes in the middle of suffering. The poundage he stacked was impressive though Matt never got bulky. He had just enough muscle to appear like he belonged in the gym, while also being slim enough to be accepted by the soccer kids, what with soccer shooting into popularity because of our country kicking ass in the world cup and all the European kids suddenly becoming cool.
Of course Matt Lamb turned out to be a natural.
It was for a Thursday night soccer practice, actually, that Gemma Skankasster picked us up. As we slid into the passenger seat and locked the door, neither of us commented. We were going to a concert together, an exhibition, a show. A viewing. Of Matt Lamb.
We looked her up and down as she drove us. Her dad was a truck driver who showed up in her life a couple of times a year, birthdays and Christmases, to give her updates – here’s how to ride a bike; here’s a crate of tampons; you’re 14? Here’s a car. She’d been driving round a while, now, without a licence in her purple Ford.
We didn’t talk much. Matt hated smoking so although Gemma was a massive smoker (her dad had bought her a pack when she was 12), Gemma just fiddled with her smokes without rolling one. We snatched glances at her. Black hair like ink poured over her skull; glinting piercings, gold and silver. Nipple rings – she’d once been on ecstasy at a party and kept flashing her boobs. She had secret tattoos, too, living on her hips.
We pulled into the carpark by the sports field and eeled up close to the island of green brightness.
The soccer boys had Matt on their shoulder for some reason. It looked like he’d just scored a goal. He came close to where Gemma and us lurked by the fence but didn’t say Hi, just studied the car, studied us, then did a secret handshake with some friend from the team. The players all scattered to drink Powerade.
No one had ever seen Matt alone. He always had helpers. As the team scattered, he transitioned perfectly to sitting on the fence with his arm around Gemma. She held him up. Matt slurped his Powerade then, when the bottle was almost empty, gave the bottle to us to hold until a recycling bin was found. Recycling was Matt’s thing that month. We all started doing it.
Gemma found some patches of skin on Matt – the inners of his elbows, and the back of his ears – and she started to melt him. There was a spare two or three minutes to go before practice resumed and people were already gathering in the middle of the field. Gemma tugged Matt towards the concrete bunker with a female sign on top of it and Matt sighed and followed her in. We’d been told off most of the times we’d stuck our dicks in girls and had never had the girl initiate sex. We kept watch outside the toilets while Gemma got Matt inside her. Matt was the first to come out – jogging briskly, boots hitting the backs of his buttocks. Gemma swore and complained and was scratching inside the straps of her tank top as she followed him out.
We watched Matt Lamb immerse himself back in the team, receive the ball, make some serious metres with it, boot for goal. ‘There he goes.’
‘There he goes,’ Gemma sighed. She turned and looked at us hard, then the eyes returned to Matt Lamb.
We watched him til the end. He got some decent headers. When he was asked to play Back and defend his goal, he was good. A fistfight broke out because a couple of the Russian kids were obsessed with defending one another. Matt got in some good punches; no one felt right hitting him back. The coach dashed around like he was trying to herd bees back inside a hive.
Afterwards, Matt said he was going off with the same Chinese he’d been fighting. He was going to play Mah Jong. Another new and fascinating discovery. Another path forged.
Gemma smoked as she drove around the park. She was pissed at Matt, clearly, and getting revenge through cigarettes. She circled the light for a while til finally she turned a different street. Matt was definitely gone.
Her place was a caravan out the back of a house with an old lady snoring on an armchair, waking occasionally to suck a cigarette. Inside Gemma’s caravan was a shrine to our cheeky-eyed, curly blonde god. Yearbooks from school were sellotaped open showing the parts with Matt. In the Year 11 photo, Matt had a SSH finger over his lips. The second, he was doing a hilarious imitation of a serene Gandhi pose. By the third photo, Matt had inspired the rest of his class to pull goofy faces, while Matt alone held up his chin and smiled warmly. Subtle, original – it was pure Matt Lamb.
‘I got more stuff on him, if you don’t mind,’ Gemma said, pulling a box from under her bed. In it were clippings, returned love notes, condom wrappers and assorted bottles.
We played with a Nestea summer fruits iced tea bottle with a little juice in the bottom. ‘He drank that, umm, let’s see… .’ Gemma pulled a diary from under her mattress, fingered the pages. ‘Oh yeah, duh: that’s Last-day-of-school Juice. Matt was drinking that final day, last term. Bout 1pm-ish.’
We asked her about the empty packet of pork rinds. Matt had eaten them during assembly right behind the principal’s head as the deputy principal was announcing the healthy foods policy. Every time Principal Mohammed’s head had turned, Matt had held the pork rinds packet up and shaken his head, playing the part of an authority disappointed to have discovered the unhealthy snack.
The prank worked on so many levels.
Gemma smoked and let us make protein shakes in her single drinking glass and we pored over the Matt Museum. We got to flicking through his baby photos – that twinkle in his eyes! So Matt Lamb – and fell asleep on each other.
Matt never shared intimate moments with people. He would tell us all where to gather for the fun events he dreamed up but he was hard to pin down. No one was quite sure where he lived. We never got to see his house.
His seventeenth birthday, at Bowlapalooza, was widely open to anyone. A crowd gathered, humming like bees, waiting for our leader. We were flinching every time the sliding doors opened, expecting to see Matt enter. Instead, when the advertised time of 12.30 was reached, Matt coolly spun around from the Speed Racer slide-in game he’d been playing all this time, got up and stretched. ‘Who’s all time high scoring player and has two thumbs?’ he asked, ‘This guyyyyy.’ All of his clothes were white – a soft hoodie contoured perfectly to his body, white track pants and puffy white Nikes, with a backwards cap. The white made the cool cardboard colour of his skin glow, reinforced by the lustre of the gold chain on his neck.
‘Ladies, gentleman?’ he said to our speechless, impressed ensemble, hefting a solid black bowling ball, ‘Shall we get down to business?’
Many of us got spares, turkeys, with the occasional strike. We occupied four lanes. Matt’s name was on each. He strolled from lane to lane, keeping up four or five conversations; he’d toss in perfect words when required. A joke here; sarcasm there. A sprinkling of philosophy; a caged threat to some of the annoying kids that they might get tossed down the lane into the pin-setting machine if they bothered the girls. The girls thanked him with squeezy limpet-hugs and hard-to-pull-off cheek kisses.
Matt, of course, kept us in suspense. He tossed away opportunity after opportunity then said casually, ‘Oh, sorry, have we started?’ and tossed his bowling ball down the lane directly into the tonsils. Three strikes in a row earned him a bonus roll, and he came from behind to lead two, then three, then all the games. His mum – glimpsed, monetarily, in the reflection of the mirror inside the grab-em-all claw machine – was the only person at Bowlapalooza unimpressed. She shuffled the handbag on her shoulder, checked her watch, fielded phone call after phone call, pacing, smoking, resting her leopard print pants against the wall, rubbing her knee high leather boots together. Mrs Lamb had only disdain for her son.
A birthday cake arrived, gifted – on the house – from a bowling alley manager besotted with our haloed leader. The cake was shaped like Pinhead, the demon from Hellraiser; each silver candle was a nail driven into the square mesh of Pinhead’s face. Matt – who was leaning against the bar, sipping the same gin and tonic as his mum – took a twenty metre run-up, blew the candles out in a single breath as he walked through our claps and cheers.
School was ending. We’d all hit seventeen-and-a-half and a few of us were toeing 18 and spilling over. Booze; driver licenses. The first few pregnant girls. Yearbooks. There was the first party where a kid got stabbed; the first quiet wallflower kids who sent us letters from the army, imploring the rest of us to be all we could be.
It was disappointing, to us, to not be able to hold Matt down in our lives. Still, it would have been wrong to stain him with our boring ordinariness.
A number of us rolled, naturally, into personal training. You got to do PE for a living. Everyone in our circle was heavier, now, bigger chests, longer legs, and the first tiny lines of weariness appearing around our eyes as the world’s acids bore into our flesh. All we did was eat and work out and tell other people to eat and work out. We chose Gemma’s checkout at the supermarket and made chit-chat with her while she beeped our groceries. No matter what her hair colour that month we could spot her from the coloured patch on her on her throat, the dark letters she’d been dared to get etched one night when we were passing around a goon bag of wine. In curling, graceful script, like an epitaph, she’d had Property of Matt Lamb inked forever on her neck.
We talked about these things when we hooked up. Gemma was always available a couple times each month for sex. Inside her trailer (her parents were dead; the trailer stayed on) she adjusted us behind her til our angle was perfect, exactly the angle Matt Lamb used to practice on her, and she guided us inside her. She got us to kiss and nibble her spine exactly as Matt had. Gemma told us precisely where Matt’s fingers slotted between her ribs, sliding down til the fingers could pinch her nipples. There was one hot night when Matt had ejaculated deep inside her with no condom when they were drunk on summer. She’d counted each of the 148 thrusts. We recreated the sex exactly and erupted warmth into Gemma’s core, our eyes rolling back inside our skulls. For a moment, we were him, a titan, a god, living on a cloud.
We made it a regular thing, Gemma and us. We kept his memory alive. He wasn’t dead, he’d just taken a plane to the Gold Coast one night at a party at his place when he was wasting everybody at karaoke on the X-Box. A pop-up advert came on the computer screen, he looked at the foaming waves lapping at the golden land and the white skyscrapers, went to his room, packed a suitcase, took a taxi and left us standing around his house holding plastic cups of beer and debating when he’d be back.
Our circles became polluted, diluted, muddied, infiltrated by new people from other schools, other codes. Private school girls; boys in the country for work. Asian students; runaways; piranha people; weird oldies who always had dope. People showed us new ways of cutting your hair, new slang, new expressions, new lingo. New rules for boys about hitting with bottles and bats.
New ways of walking. New food to eat. New suggestions about what spoiler belonged on a man’s Subaru Legacy racecar.
Gemma was the first to turn 21. Her party was in a field us waving weeds where the feds couldn’t tell us off. We’d always suspected Gemma’s tattoos and piercings and fuck-you in-your-faceness was because she’d lived a couple of months more of life than the rest of us. She’d been scarred and scared and shocked by what was out there in the future. The cold cruel grownup world had pocked her cream skin, made her voice sharp, made the gas flame of optimism in her eyes dwindle and die. She was getting fat around the arms; tits were too fat, now, to praise.
There was a tent where you could go and lie down with a needle in your arm, another tent for people hooking up. A tent for the straight edgers and fitness freaks, and tent for the stoners with their three foot bong. Gemma – ever the older, mature – went from group to group, squinting into the black to check on each of us.
Matt’s ghost was there, though not the body. Charn and Trinidad recreated that time Matt had been set upon by a pack of juveniles in the city, how he’d laughed as he tossed one of the hoodrats into the fountain, pushed another through the safety glass of the McDonalds, and shoved another into the path of a passing car. The boys’ wild theatre, lit by lapping bonfire flames, attracted one or two of us at a time, til we were all standing in a circle, contributing lines, details, keeping Matt Lamb alive. Gemma had a new anecdote she agreed to unwrap only when everybody was silent and the bonfire was under control and she had a fresh white cigarette and a lighter and a glass of Smirnoff. What she revealed was she had once needed to hand in an assignment about Hamlet, and she’d been partying and driving all night, and 9am was looming and she had nothing to hand in. Matt had escorted her right up to Ms Rahmati’s desk, looked Mrs Rahmati right in the eyes to hypnotise her, and pasted a sticker saying Gemma Hanscombe right over the name of some poor other kid. Gemma had gotten an A-minus. For that. Standing around the bonfire of our king’s wife – hell, our QUEEN – we all applauded.
We had new stories among us. There was the time Matt Lamb persuaded those girl scouts that came to his door to give him six packets of cookies, which he promised to on-sell and – at a later date – return profit to the scout troupe.
There was the story about Matt secretly recording an R&B album a lot of us owned, but he did it under a pseudonym, sneaking out of his bedroom late at night to record.
There was a story about Matt Lamb’s middle name, the effortlessly cool Ethan, about which we nodded and raised our glasses in a toast.
A lot of us had wanted to leave Gemma’s party at midnight to hit the clubs, but the hours spilled over til 1am, then the alcohol and drugs and exciting stories kept us in a trance which lasted til 3, and then the sun was coming up and we were throwing onto the embers every detail were remembered about our leader. If Matt laid you, he’d mention the thread count of the sheets you were fucking in. If you were playing basketball with him, he’d rope you into a Texas two-step then practically stand on your back to get a dunk. We spoke of how he swum (a powerful, crisp overarm with not a drop of water entering his nose). We kept alive his patois, his hair styles. Jane Scranth had once come to his door selling magazine subscriptions and when his mum had answered (wearing a kimono), she’d spotted a shag carpet conversation pit and potted bamboo plants, and the perfect tones of Vivaldi emanating from Apple speakers. Paul Wrightson told us he’d once seen a limousine hovering outside Matt’s house, engine running. There was that one time we were walking to school and we realised that for ten minutes, Matt had been perfectly aping each of our footsteps, practising spycraft with a satisfied smirk.
All of the stories combined gave us 60 percent of the man’s life, maybe 70. He never posted his own Instagrams and was only ever tagged by others. He was spotted in Dubai, expats said. There remained an entire continent of mystery about the man.
The next integer was the 25th birthday. Ours took place in the VIP section of the Schlazenger Club on Broadway. We were fighting full time, now, having turned an interest in boxfit into a few amateur mixed martial arts fights and then a lowly-paid contract, the first opener on six fight mixed nights. The only person from school who made it was Gemma. We asked her how were things at the supermarket and she snorted and spat and lit a fresh ciggy and blew smoke away from us. She was working full time as an escort, now. Her voice had sunk so deep it seemed to thud on the floorboards and trail along. She came inside our roped-off area and looked at the girls and boys in black with distaste. Gemma was in purple leopard print leggings and halter top, showing off her cleavage. Our lips brushed her neck (Property of Matt Lamb) as we kissed and exchanged catchups. We’d had a baby with a girl Japanese kickboxer but our Miho was living in Okinawa with her mum, raised in a resort. Gemma had had three children. Everyone who’d spoken at Gemma’s party, we’d all had children. We’d all stretched ourselves. All tried to run off a cliff into an ocean of bachelor freedom and balked, last minute, at the cliff edge, retreating into the safe arms of income and career.
Matt had, too, according to the rumour. There were little Matt Lambs out there somewhere, with powerful blue eyes and incredible angles in their little faces and that HAIR, the golden fleece. Perhaps Matt wouldn’t be hard to find. He was a builder, apparently, and had made the very cool, very edge decision to live in a newly-built $400,000 house on land that used to be a farm in a corner of the city everyone knew would get swallowed up and built on. Matt’s house looked exactly like that of his neighbours. He had the same bikes and boat in the garage, the same patio and four burner barbecue, the same black tarmac that he rolled his truck onto every morning. Same income. His wife spoke and looked and drove and ate the same as everybody else.
‘We should hook up,’ she said, ‘I can do Wednesday, about eight?’ She said obviously it wouldn’t cost me a cent. We tried fucking but we couldn’t cum and instead we sat on Gemma’s bed flipping through yearbooks and laughing about Finlayson’s erection and Why you talkin to a zombie? and all the other Mattisms.
Our reunion took place in the middle of two weeks of celebrations for Hillmorton High School’s 125th anniversary. Sesqui-bration they called it. We nursed our bottles of beer, standing in a circle just off the disco, where nobody could force us to dance.
All we talked about was Matt Lamb. Our discussion about the FIFA world cup led to talk about that time Matt scored a goal off a header. Talk of jet skis turned to talk of Matt’s Instagram with him on a jetski out on the lake. Our museum was no longer in Gemma’s scrap books. It was a museum of speech and thought. We talked, and Matt lived. We talked of his ordinary life, his mailbox, the fresh black tarmac in the boring cul de sac where his children cycled on their BMXs. We talked of the regular old Ford he drove to his ordinary job where Matt had ended up painfully normal, surely unappreciated. We talked of the rare glimpses inside his life: rare lift home in the mum’s car; a swim in his pool; seeing inside Matt’s school bag; that time Matt was encountered at K-mart. Matt made it, at last, apologising (he’d struggled to find a babysitter) with a wife.
She was as fat and blonde and rosy-cheeked. None of us expected someone so average. Her clothes had been seen at K-mart. She had a butterfly tattoo above her ass visible when she reached behind to scratch her butt.
We exclaimed and guffawed and brushed each other’s shoulders and passed around baby photos on our cellphones, balancing beers on our bellies. Matt seemed to relax, a fraction. He answered questions like he was speaking on a conference panel. Yes, he had two little boys, both with a babysitter who was costing him an arm and a leg. No, he’d never shagged that trainee teacher, but she had pashed him at the school disco. Matt was often surprised at the information about himself coming across the circle, but he nodded slowly, as if agreeing with a fatal cancer diagnosis from his doctor. His wife complained about the canapes and stormed out to the car. Matt didn’t blink, didn’t say goodbye, just muttered something about her stomach stapling surgery and her diabetes. We tried to cheer him up with stories about himself. He moved his head up and down, wide-eyed, fixated, appreciative. We told him about the time Matt Lamb had climbed the rope in gym class to the top of the building then stayed up there, living in the rafters til the Fire Service brought a ladder in. We let him know it was Matt Lamb who turned the school pool pink with industrial tins of beetroot stolen from the school camp supplies. And he simply HAD to hear the legend of Why you talkin to a zombie.
Several times he looked poised to contradict the memory, or ask a question about himself, but he fcouldn’t get a word in edgeways. We told him everything, laughing til our stomachs hurt and we had to put our beers on the ground as we doubled-over, faces burning with joy. We kept him alive long into the night.