Someone sent Norman to fill a bucket with water from an outside tap at the end of the building, a faucet which, reconstructing the episode long afterwards, he presumed was carefully unscrewed beforehand so that it balanced precariously at the end of its thread, and the slightest movement or disturbance would cause it to come adrift in the hand of anyone who turned it, to fill a bucket, say, so that in a split second that unfortunate person would release a strong, apparently unstoppable upward torrent of icy water, fortified by mains pressure. This is what happened when
He does not remember who sent him, and certainly he was completely unaware of having been set up.
He turned the faucet, it came off in his hand, and suddenly there was an explosion of water.
Aghast, wet, wetter, drenched and freezing: Norman Threlfall stood before the pipe, and as his eyes moved from the faucet now detached in his hand to the waterspout and back again, with suspicious dispatch all the other boys materialized, forming a discreet semicircle, distant enough for dryness, but close enough to see all the action. As much as they squealed, and jumped up and down, and raced around yelling,
Slowly at first,
Mr. Brown then proceeded to use
At first Norman couldn’t see the washer in the buffalo grass, even though Mr. Brown was shouting directions in his ear, and pointing with the fat potato forefinger of his right hand—pointing, an act of such futility that even Norman, in his distress, was astonished by the degree of underlying stupidity it revealed in Mr. Brown, a dazzling, slate-gray, whole-of-life slowness that is actually so rare as to justify careful study, because naturally Norman could see nothing apart from water, dirt, and the cheap, vomit-colored brick wall to which the pipe was attached—further damning evidence of the lack of architectural distinction in which Palmerston Grammar School specialized, and fools few children.
Norman recalled afterwards that, in his nakedness, the more he looked for the washer, which consisted of a small plug-like piece of brass fitted with a little red rubber ring, the tighter Mr. Brown gripped his little neck, and the louder the other boys pointed, laughed, jumped up and down, and raced around yelling.
Shivering and turning his head to gasp for air, Norman caught sight of the other schoolmaster, not Mr. Brown, whose fat body was now pressing against him from behind, but the other schoolmaster, Mr. Grey, who was standing a little way off, against a curtain of dismal gum trees farther down the hill, the schoolmaster with the absurd speech impediment and the air of malnutrition, and that sinister taste for beating boys on the bottom with an old sneaker. Over the racket of background noise, the torrent of cold water, and even as Mr. Brown’s free hand deftly slid between Norman’s shivering buttocks, Norman knew for a fact that Mr. Grey was frightened to the pit of his stomach by what he saw was happening to Norman, but evidently not so frightened that he was willing or even able to do anything about it.
Norman held Mr. Grey’s rheumy gaze for not very long, but for at least several seconds after Mr. Brown inserted the forefinger of his right hand into Norman’s rectum, in front of Mr. Grey and all the other boys, long enough, in other words, to plant a large dry pod, a rare encysted spiny seedpod, that rattled down into some fresh cranny of unnatural hate, whence in the fullness of time a poisonous creeper, a leathery parasitic vine, the tendrils of a stinking Rhinanthus duly sprouted, its twisting suckers nourished by years and years of solitary night memory, occasionally watered with lies from salten creek beds, absurdly remote, drier than the whole fucking continent, infested with venomous snakes, picked over by huge, glossy, black crows.
Nothing of the kind happened straight away, however, and when Mr. Brown extracted his fat forefinger from Norman’s stinging rectum, Norman’s greatest anxiety was that he would defecate in front of the other boys, and Mr. Grey, whom he knew was frightened to the pit of his stomach.
Not until later did
Norman Threlfall was neither frightened nor, he recalls, aware of any particular anguish; he was probably too shocked. Instead he was at a loss to know how he would be able to walk into the canteen at lunchtime as if nothing at all had happened. Somehow he began to worry about what his father and mother might think if they ever found out what he had done. How would he explain it to his mother if the blood kept coming out of his bottom? He hummed a boring treble part of Vivaldi’s Gloria, put his wet clothes in a plastic bag, and went in to lunch.
The beatings began back in
Perhaps aware that
After he repaired the tap—Norman was still unaware that he was not, in fact, responsible for breaking it—Mr. Brown, the ne plus ultra, the dark angel of fatness, made Norman pick up his clothes, which were sodden, and sent him away. From beginning to end, to the extent that there ever was one, this strange incident cannot have lasted for much longer than five minutes. No witness ever mentioned it to
Curiously, it was the specter of Mr. Grey, not Mr. Brown, that haunted
Thirty, in fact, when, in a moment of mental abstraction, for which he never can forgive himself, as Miss Prism put it, about six months after he was diagnosed with H.I.V., Norman, who was by then living comfortably on the other side of the world, propelled thence by unreasonable, constantly overheating ambition, wrote a conciliatory letter to Mr. Grey, and posted it with a covering note to the current headmaster of Palmerston Grammar School.
Without going into very much pertinent detail, Norman sketched the general outline of his story, and asked the headmaster please to forward the letter to Mr. Grey, who, Norman guessed, was living in quiet retirement, almost certainly somewhere depressing. His purpose in seeking to communicate with Mr. Grey was, Norman naïvely asserted, nothing more than a long-delayed effort to understand why what happened to him ever happened at all. Was there some missing detail, or lapse of memory, or ghastly error, he wondered, or a fantastic elision of separate but related recollections that might help Norman to put the incident in some more rational context, or even explain it?
To his dismay, however,
Another phrase disturbed
Norman’s phrasing, after all, had been so characteristically delicate, unimpeachably moderate in tone, so level-headed and realistic as regards the statute of limitations, so ready to acknowledge the futility and destructiveness of civil litigation, in fact so amply willing to dismiss the possibility—on the quaint, self-congratulatory grounds, Norman stated, that he came from a long line of prudent attorneys and therefore, innately, knew better than to go down that forlorn path—that he had failed to predict what anyone with half a brain could have told him was inevitable, namely that his version of real events, so thoughtfully sanitized, so tactfully drafted to cause as little offense as possible, would nevertheless be received not with dismay or even horror, but with undisguised skepticism.
“What did you think they would say?”
By some miracle, at least, Norman Threlfall never heard from Mr. Grey.