I wore a yellow corduroy suit with red rain boots, really modern ones sent over from the continent by my grandmother, the shiny rubber reflected the sky and there was a piece of fake leather sewn on the top, from it dangled a shoelace. I could tie it in a bow if I wanted to; but, I liked it swinging about my legs freely as I walked. I knew that I stood out in those fashionable clothes; the other children wore brown and black. My mother said that the Seventies hadn’t started here yet.
There was an older boy in my class who was about sixteen. Everybody called him Frank, and at first I thought that that was his real name. Only much later I found out that it was short for Frankenstein. Children said he was behind, called him ‘retarded’. They told me that when Frank was six he was knocked down on the road. After that his body still grew but his mind didn’t. We were both tall, but as far as I was concerned the comparison stopped there. I didn’t want to be tall like him but most of all I didn’t want to be taller than the other normal children.
Our teacher told us that God always answers our prayers, and that God is merciful. I didn’t know what that word meant but I could tell by the way he said it that it must be something good. I wasn’t brought up a Catholic, not at home at least, but at school there was no escaping from God. He was everywhere. And I adjusted.
I prayed to God, even outside of the compulsory periods, because that’s when we had to say the normal prayers, Hail Marys and Our Fathers, aloud. We had said those prayers so many times that we sang the words like Buddhists monks do on the telly, repeating the syllables over and over again, like a mantra. But in my head I really prayed for my height. I didn’t want to grow any taller: if I went on growing I would be taller than Frank. I shuddered at the thought of the names they would call me. Even now, they sometimes asked me what the weather was like up here, they thought it was hilarious and I never knew what to answer. Straight after school, I used to go to my bedroom, and on bare feet, with my heels against the wall I would draw a mark above my head. With that mark I checked God’s work and if He was answering my prayers.
We had two teachers. And two lessons a day. Our teacher taught everything except Maths: Mr. Brown taught that. He was our school principal. That gave the subject importance, significance. My heart raced as I watched silently when he did sums on the blackboard. Mr. Brown was always dressed in a grey suit. Not dark, not light, but middle grey. He had square-shaped face and middle grey hair that was parted on the right side, and there he grew it to fairytale lengths and tried to cover the huge bulge of red shiny skin on the top of his bald head. During our first Maths lesson he drew two dots on the blackboard and named them A and B. He asked us what the shortest distance was between those dots. Red-faced boys stuck up their hands and guessed eagerly at the right answer. They were all wrong.
Mr. Brown smiled and said, ‘Nienke.’
‘A straight line,’ I said and felt my cheeks glow.
‘Very good,’ he said and winked at me.
I was special, at least in his class I felt special. And he gave me a special job. Every day I was to draw a weather card, and then put it in a frame that he had adjusted to the wall especially for them. Every day I drew a rain cloud with a sun, half hidden behind it, and the rays of the sun like the mane of a lion reaching across the light blue or sometimes, soft grey skies. The weather wasn’t very changeable: every day the sun would come out and everyday it would rain, sometimes for long periods, sometimes only briefly. But on my cards it didn’t make much difference, rain was rain, and sun was sun, and so everyday my card was the same as the one from the day before. After two weeks I got bored, and decided to add some botanical details. I drew daffodils and crocuses, some with raindrops on the petals and others entwined with beautiful leaves in different shades of greens and blues. The hungry paper sucked the colour from my markers with such enthusiasm that they left big round dots on the white. Everywhere those dots appeared and they started to irritate me. I tried to touch the paper swiftly, only putting the felt-tip down a fraction of a second, but it didn’t make a difference.
So I experimented. If I licked it with my tongue, wetting it with spit I could draw a more even line, but the dots still appeared, and licking made them even worse. Then I noticed a pattern, and I realised that I could use them to my advantage. My cards now became even more colourful, abundant, varied, in plants and skies, and in the techniques I used.
Mr. Brown complimented me on my weather cards, patted my shoulder and left his warm hand linger on my neck for just a few seconds. And every day I felt more flattered.
He gave us compasses to draw circles. We sharpened our colouring pencils just as Mr. Brown showed us, and put them on our desks according to the colour, from greens to blues to purples, to reds, oranges, yellows, just as he did. I marveled at all the colours turning from one shade to the next. We screwed the pencils into our compasses. With all those colours we could make beautiful drawings, beautiful flowers, just by moving our compasses a fraction in the circumference. ‘“Circumference,”’ I giggled when I pronounced it. ‘Another new English word,’ I whispered, then repeating it over and over to myself in my head. My hunger for new words stilled for just a moment. I wanted to speak just like the other children, fluent and with their beautiful accents just like them.
Mr. Brown picked up Frank’s drawing, and held it up, showing it to the class. Frank looked at me and smiled shyly. I looked at his drawing. He hadn’t drawn a circle, or maybe he didn’t even try, couldn’t find the circumference or didn’t know that he had to stick the point of the compass into the paper. He had used the pencil to draw a house with the compass probably sticking uselessly into midair; the house had a chimney, and somewhere on the bottom of his squared paper he had drawn two tall thin figures, one wearing a yellow suit, the yellow stripes scratched over the body as if the material was supposed to look like yellow corduroy. I looked at my yellow corduroy covered legs and at my yellow corduroy covered arms. I felt my heart starting to throb. On the ends of the arms he had drawn rakes, which overlapped as if they were holding hands, on their faces big smiles and they had little dots as eyes.
‘Look’, Mr. Brown said, ‘at what our little simple-minded artist has been up to.’
Mr. Brown looked at Frank closely and said, ‘And who are these two figures?’ pointing at the two figures.
‘Her,’ he said pointing at me, ‘and me.’ A line of snotty slime flowed out of his nose and ran along his upper lip, into the corner of his mouth. Frank licked it as if it was a milk moustache. My throat burned with disgust.
‘Her and me?’ Mr. Brown looked around the classroom.
‘Yes sir,’ Frank said with a voice that was just breaking as a teenager’s does, but saying it as if he was just a little kid.
Frank was smiling, proud that the teacher had taken his drawing to show to the class.
‘Are you going to marry her?’
Mr. Brown smiled and the other children were in stitches.
Frank’s tongue was hanging out of his mouth, as it often did when he was nervous or concentrating on something, and drool dripped on the front of his shirt. Sometimes the wet mark would look like a baby’s bib, the darkened material shaped just like one.
Mr. Brown said, ‘Put that filthy thing back in your mouth,’ with a stern voice and smacked Frank’s copy softly against his tongue while saying it. Frank could just catch it as it slid down his wet shirt front, smiling in an awkward way.
Mr. Brown picked up my copy and said, ‘And Nienke has made these.’
With the compass I’d made flowers and by moving the compass just a fraction they looked like they swayed on a breeze. With different shades of green I had drawn the leaves and they embraced the heads of the flowers, making them look even brighter.
‘How did you do that,’ a girl’s voice behind me asked full of admiration. I felt light-headed with pride.
Every day Mr. Brown would check our homework. He would ask different boys up to the front of the classroom with their homework assignments. And he would check their copies, if he thought that the homework was not up to scratch, he would let his cane slide out of his sleeve. That’s where he always carried it, hidden inside his sleeve, and he would hit the boys on the palms of their hands until they turned bright red. Mr. Brown didn’t pull a face as if he hated doing it. I watched him closely. he showed no emotion at all. He always asked boys to come forward, never girls, only boys, and sometimes they would cry, and try to tell Mr. Brown why the homework wasn’t finished. Sometimes even pleading with crying voices, begging for forgiveness, trying to explain, the tears running down their cheeks. But usually they would just take their punishment with their jaws clenched tight not making a sound. I stiffened on those occasions the skin of my face turning cold. I was ashamed that I had to witness this; ashamed that I didn’t dare say anything to help them. I felt the humiliation of the boys creep under my skin.
In the lunch break we played outside, we had two fields to play in and the boys had two as well. Their fields were behind ours so they had to walk the furthest, but we were the weaker sex, that’s what Mr. Brown said. And that’s what the boys cried out laughing, when they ran past us. ‘Ye’re weak sissies.’
Behind their fields was a river. In summer the boys would throw out their fishing lines with hooks attached on the ends. Mr. Brown said it was a dead river, that sewage was vomited from the pipes in the village, killing the water and everything in it. ‘Vomited’ that’s the word he used and I could picture it, a disgusting thick pulp of human waste rolling into the flowing stream swallowing everything that crossed its path like a big brown monster with two black and white eyes, just like in the comics I read. Sometimes toilet paper would catch the hooks or other things. Once I saw Frank with red lacy knickers, the boys chasing after him. They tried to get them off him but he was too fast for them. He wanted to give it to me, I ignored him, pretended he was thin air. And everyone was laughing really loudly.
Sometimes the boys would come into our fields, when they’d thought up a new game. Frank was leading man, he always obeyed everyone. The boys, giggling like girls, would stand at a distance while Frank tried to catch us. We ran off screaming because we knew how strong Frank was. And how fast. He would catch up to us with long even strides and pick us up from behind, his arms wrapped tightly around our bodies, and our feet dangling just above the ground.
We tried to tug our bodies free kicking our legs like crazy, but he was too strong, too dedicated to the game. He laughed in an even low tone like a zombie and we screamed as if in a horror film. He smelled our hair and kissed our necks just below the hairline, leaving it wet and cold, like an overly enthusiastic puppy, horrible. I felt his scabby nose with dried snot on my skin. I wanted to wipe that wet slimy patch from my neck but couldn’t get my arms free from under his. Warm gusts of his breath hit the back of my neck and went through my hair, over my head, as if physically caressing it. I felt the stubbles of his beard and his wet tongue, and I was thoroughly disgusted.
‘Stop,’ I screamed.
The other girls tried to get him off me. They tried to reach the backs of his knees with their hockey sticks, tried to make his legs bend so that he would have to let me go or fall over. My voice rasped through my throat from screaming. I knew it was all meant as a game, but I was disgusted by Frank’s slimy mouth and disgustingly snotty nose. And that cold wetness in my neck. Finally he loosened his grip and let himself fall like a cowboy who’d been shot heaving his hands up to his heart. For him it was just play-acting but I hated it, hated seeing him lying there on the ground his head tipped back in the wet grass, mouth open, even low grunts of laughter escaping his thick lips, his Adam’s apple jetting up and down under the milky transparent skin of his throat. Okay so he was six in his head, but I had had enough.
When the bell rang, I sneaked into Mr. Brown’s office. I didn’t want the others to see me. Mr. Brown was sitting behind his desk. He smiled and told me to have a seat. I didn’t want to sit down, I wanted to go back to my classroom, and get on with my lessons, before anyone missed me. I told him about Frank’s behaviour. Mr. Brown was very understanding. He said I was right Frank was disgusting. I explained that it wasn’t all Frank’s fault that the boys put him up to it.
‘But enough is enough,’ I said.
I was proud of myself for daring to go into Mr. Brown’s office, for speaking English so well. Mr. Brown said he would speak to Frank and the boys, maybe even Frank’s mother. It had been the last time, he said, ‘You mark my words.’
Mr. Brown accompanied me to my classroom, walking fast, too fast for me to reach the door first in order to hold it open for him, the way the other kids had to. He held the door open for me. And everybody looked up as I entered the classroom. I tried to ignore their stares while I walked to my seat. The girls sitting behind me looked viciously at me. I tried to smile, to reassure them that everything would be all right now but I was too nervous. I couldn’t even force a smile. It was the way they were looking at me, their piercing unrelenting eyes.
‘Frank,’ Mr. Brown said. ‘Frank would you come over?’
My feet felt heavy like lead blocks. This wasn’t supposed to happen. He was supposed to speak to the whole group about their behaviour, not Frank alone. Please God not the cane. Not the cane. Please God.
Frank shuddered, his cheeks turning bright pink. He shuffled over to Mr. Brown like a naughty little kid, looking from under his dark eyebrows, his head lowered. Mr. Brown let the cane slide out of his sleeve and we all knew what was going to happen next. My heart started galloping. ‘It isn’t his fault,’ a voice whispered behind me. ‘Nienke do something, how could you have told on him.’
‘Is this my fault?’ I whispered. My fault — I looked at the other children, everyone thinks this is my fault? I tried to think of something but my brain wouldn’t work with me, thoughts raced in all directions.
Mr. Brown took Frank’s hand in his. ‘So you like playing games,’ he said.
Frank looked embarrassed, caught like a small boy does, naughty in a jokingly manner, as if he thought that everything was still going to be all right.
‘I do,’ he said as he smiled into the class, smiling his weird Frankenstein smile.
Mr. Brown told Frank to open his fist and show the palm of his hand. I don’t think Frank disobeyed him on purpose, I don’t think he really knew what was going to happen. Mr. Brown bit his lower lip, and swung his cane up, his face turning red, he swung it down hitting Frank on his closed fingers, on his knuckles. Mr. Brown’s face swelled over his white stiff collar, as if pumped up from the effort.
Just before the cane had hit Frank’s fist he smiled shyly, but once it came down his face changed continuously as if he didn’t know which expression to hold, as if he didn’t even know what was actually happening. His fingers spread out like the wings of a frightened bird. Mr. Brown swung again this time on the back of Frank’s hand. This time a loud shriek escaped from Frank’s mouth.
After the third blow I stood up.
‘Sir, please stop.’
Mr. Brown looked at me.
Tears were dripping from Frank’s chin onto his shirt, making dark grey stains in the already moist material. Frank was quiet now; he just pulled faces like a small boy trying not to cry.
Mr. Brown let go of Frank’s hand. He looked at me, his eyes made me feel awful, as if he had done it all for me. Please God, please God, I repeated in my head.
‘Put that filthy thing back in your mouth,’ Mr. Brown said as slid the cane back into his sleeve. He straightened his suit, turned and walked back to his office, without even saying anything to the other boys. My cheeks felt like I had been sitting to close to the fire, like they were burned, my vision was blurred. I took my copies out of my schoolbag, I needed to do something, be occupied, I needed to think about something else; Maths maybe, draw some of those flowers… the other children whispered, their voices swished around me, but I wasn’t listening. I didn’t want to understand what they were saying anymore; I wanted to go home, forever, and never come back. Our teacher started his geography lesson, as if nothing had happened, telling us about mountain formations, as if that was important, as if anything is still important now. I didn’t want to be taught by him, not by any of them anymore.
I was going to do what I wanted to do. My triangles, my hypotenuses opposite the right angles, I wanted to work out their length. But the look on Frank’s face just before the cane hit his hand, that trusting childish smile, as if it wasn’t happening to him, thinking he was special, thinking he was liked by Mr. Brown, trusting him, that face kept haunting me. The boys looked after him, taking out his books, his colouring pencils for him. Frank didn’t pay them much attention; he just kept his hand in his mouth, stared into space and cried softly.
I thought of the fishing line and hooks that the boys always had with them. I thought of ways of taking revenge. I didn’t want to leave it. The bell went. The teacher left the classroom, followed by a stampede of kids wanting to get home quickly. I wanted to talk to the boys, we had to think of something, do something. I put my books in my schoolbag. But I needed to do something else first. I walked over to the frame with the weather cards. I took out the pile of cards and tore them through the middle, folded them and tore again, and again and again, until the paper wouldn’t tear anymore. I threw the shredded pieces of paper over the teacher’s desk and walked out into the hallway. My red coat with the fake fur collar was lying on the floor; it must have fallen from the coat peg. Muddy footprints marked the woolen material from the collar all the way to the hem. I put on my coat and pulled my long ponytail from under the collar.
It was starting to get dark. The girls in my class hadn’t waited for me. Just outside the school gates a group of boys were waiting for someone. I recognised a few from my class but there were bigger boys there too. They all looked at me as I came nearer, walking on the path leading to the gate. I heard a few girls giggling behind me, girls from fifth class. I heard them whisper that the big boys were Frank’s older brothers.
‘Which one?’ one of the big boys called out as he started to walk out in my direction. He had mean eyes, staring at me like an angry cat suspicious of my moves. The girls ran past me, past the boys, out the gates and onto the road. One of the smaller boys looked over at me, but stayed by the gates. I recognised him, once he’d helped me escape Frank’s grip, back when everything was still a game. His dark fringe hung in strands over his soft eyes. He looked away and said, ‘The one… in the yellow cords…’
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