Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Ordeal of Norman Threlfall

The incident occurred on the last day of the school camp at Shepparton, a Friday, when, after breakfast, the boys were set to work cleaning their rooms, stripping their bunks, washing windows, sweeping floors, and packing up so that the bus could leave for Melbourne promptly after lunch.

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 Norman was sent to fill the yellow plastic bucket from the outside tap at the end of the building.

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, Norman froze. He froze both figuratively and actually, because the water was very cold indeed.

Norman’s initial reaction was to think that he had himself destroyed the tap, and that since there was no way to stop the flow of water, he would certainly get into trouble. Before long the Warden, Mr. Brown, appeared from around the side of the building. Mr. Brown stood for a moment, with his hands on his fat hips, and then he told Norman to take off all his clothes. Norman blinked. Mr. Brown repeated the order, raising his voice, arching his fat back after the manner of a physical threat.

Slowly at first, Norman took off his woolly sweater, and his shirt. He took off his shoes and socks, and his pants. But Norman hesitated, because he did not want to take off his underpants in front of all the other boys. But Mr. Brown told him to take off his underpants, so he did, and he was quite naked.

Mr. Brown then proceeded to use Norman’s little naked body as a kind of shield between Mr. Brown and the flow of water, which, when Mr. Brown maneuvered himself into position, struck Norman with stinging force. It hit Norman’s face, his thin arms, and his tummy. It poured down his legs. It half blinded him. Mr. Brown clutched Norman’s neck with his left hand, and attempted to guide Norman through the process of, first, locating the washer that had come adrift from the tap, second, reuniting the washer and the faucet, and finally, against the flow of water, screwing the apparatus back onto the thread at the end of the pipe.

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 observe traces of bright red blood in his shit, in the toilet cubicle, where he stood motionless in the dark, gazing into the pan for more than half an hour.

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 Melbourne the following Tuesday afternoon, before cricket practice. It was at least four years before Norman finally found out what the word poofter meant, and another ten before that unwelcome discovery began to stop cutting an imaginary hole through the back of his hand.

Perhaps aware that Norman’s thoughts were straying far beyond the matter of the tap and the flow of water, which was, after all, precious, Mr. Brown stooped to fix it himself. Norman noticed that although he completed the job with surprising speed, as he did so Mr. Brown managed to take advantage of several of Norman’s other secret, pink places, which did not hurt him nearly as much as the fat potato forefinger of Mr. Brown’s right hand hurt his bottom.

Norman also noticed that Mr. Brown grunted into his ear those grunts which are the special province of the intrinsically fat, emanating with phlegm from quivering tubes and wobbling nether parts, holding the exciting promise of morbid obesity, if not now then later, gradual and creeping. In fact to Norman, not yet freed from the grasp of Mr. Brown’s fat left hand, which was still clamping the base of his little neck, Mr. Brown struck Norman as one of those unfortunate souls destined to carry the liverish, suety overhang of the ages, the ripe, sickly, panting moistness contained in the very concept of fat, coated with filmy driblets of sweat that form over lard in hot weather, and that Mr. Brown’s fatness might easily kill him, and each of his greedy fat children, as effectively as the tip of an especially sharp knife would surely carve out his eye.

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 Norman. He was not yet eleven years old.

Curiously, it was the specter of Mr. Grey, not Mr. Brown, that haunted Norman for many years.

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?

Soon after, Norman received a soothing reply from the headmaster, in which he undertook to forward the letter to Mr. Grey. Norman was surprised that without reservation the headmaster ventured to apologize for what took place at Shepparton. No doubt vetted by the school’s ancient, hugely respectable firm of attorneys, Norman read and re-read the headmaster’s letter numerous times, on the train, in the library, while waiting in line at the consulate-general, in the middle of the night, during meetings. It was typed, word-processed, in a vaguely offensive sans serif font.

To his dismay, however, Norman immediately realized that he had misremembered Mr. Grey’s Christian name, a fact that the headmaster was careful to disclose, a fraction too early in the first paragraph of his carefully-worded letter. It was a small detail, but one that Norman fervently wished he had gotten right.

Another phrase disturbed Norman at first, then gradually irritated him, and eventually, in the days and weeks following, drove him into a state of exasperation. While the headmaster had, he wrote, “no reason to disbelieve,” or some such locution... Disbelieve? Disbelieve what?

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?” Norman eventually asked himself. “What on earth did you think you were doing? What do you want? What next?”

Previously Norman felt himself entitled to a Nobel Prize for Magnanimity, or at the very least some thoughtfully administered balm for the mind, if not for his aging bottom. Now, however, he found himself propelled by the headmaster’s letter, with its oleaginous but somehow at the same time cautious flavor, into unforeseen, dumbfounded possession of the Pulitzer for Blind Rage.

By some miracle, at least, Norman Threlfall never heard from Mr. Grey.