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Authors: Diane Awerbuck

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BOOK: Cabin Fever
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And he had also, in his ignorance, allied himself with the same people he hated: with the ranks of the grieving. He didn’t know that in African culture a shaven head is a sign of mourning.

That knowledge would relieve him of his last weapon: his smirk – at the cameras, at the relatives of the dead. It was not the grimace of the nervous teenager he had been, but the smile of the man he was now, the one who still thought he stood a chance against the system. His broken teeth made my own teeth ache in my mouth: they were the saddest thing about him, a reminder that he had no idea what he had done.

But he would come to know the significance of his act. De Jager would have an endless and solitary stretch to ponder the banality of responsibility, long after his hair had grown back while he waited in his cell for revelation; long after the hair of his victims fell away from their scalps where they lay, all four of them, done and dusted, under the earth.

His appearance on the court stage was brief. He spoke and was led backstage again, to minimise contact with the rage of the public that sometimes cheats the judge’s decision. On his way De Jager lifted his hand to his mother and she grabbed it for a second as he passed her. The gallery hissed, but there were also small plainsong murmurs of ‘Shame’. Shame.

I grabbed the cameraman and pulled him to his feet. We moved quickly into the corridor and caught them. It wasn’t difficult. I put out my hand and laid it on the fleshy bicep of his mother. My arm tingled as the blood rushed back into it. The lawyer tried to bar my way but the couple stopped, and she didn’t shake me off. Her inertia halted the progress of the people massing in the doorway behind, and I found myself pressed against her.

‘Mrs de Jager, is there anything you want to say to the families of the victims?’

Her husband stood mute at her side, his eyelids flickering like a sleeper’s. The other journalists swarmed around us. They were starting to shout over my voice. I had to be quick, but she distracted me. Something about her was familiar beyond the routine pixilation of newspaper photographs.

‘The victims? What do you mean?’ The question came slowly, as if she hadn’t spoken in days. Her hair hadn’t been washed for court: it rested on her forehead in greasy ammoniac strands.

‘The victims. The people who died.’

The other journalists were rushing forward.

‘Mrs de Jager!’

‘Mrs de Jager!’

‘Do you have any comment?’

The press of people locked us together. The hot stink of her scalp made my nose prickle and run: that scent of animals marking territory.

We could not understand each other. She cocked her ripe head to the side, her eyes squeezed upwards in puzzlement. I wiped my nose and rephrased the question.

‘The four people your son killed. That he shot with his rifle.’

‘But my son didn’t kill anybody.’ She gave a little laugh of relief, a few discordant notes. This was more familiar: she knew the chorus from here. Mrs de Jager laughed again, forcing the air into my face so that I had to breathe in what she had breathed out. ‘I don’t know where you got this. No one was killed.’

And her lawyer hustled them away from me. She laughed all the way down the passage, all the way to the car outside. Her smell stayed.

The Extra Lesson

S
OMEONE ONCE TOLD ME THAT ALL PEOPLE
look either like wolves or like pigs. It came to me again as we hunched under the library tables. Round about then I also realised that my teaching diploma wasn’t going to help. You only find this out later, when your spine is pressed against the steel legs of a government table. Things are different down there: democracy happens at floor level.

A girl whimpered. The sun caught her braces as she shifted in the trapezium of light from the library window. Her ears in the headgear were marvellously intact, as smooth and whole as the chocolate roses the prefects were dishing out to the girls gathered next door for Assembly (
BE MINE
said their wrappers) while we stole an extra lesson. I pressed her back into shadow, but it was useless, really. The other six girls were crouched the same way, instinctive as rabbits, completely visible but hoping somehow that they weren’t. As if the voices outside weren’t going to penetrate the world of books; as if no one’s ever hidden under a table.

We had heard them before they arrived, but you don’t run, here in the cloisters: here you wait and see. ‘Marco!’ a boy shouted. ‘Polo!’ someone else whooped back. They knew their way around, those boys from the school across the common. I watched them through the portholes of the doors: the poster pinned there left me with paper cuts. The boys were yanking on the red bunting round the quad, scattering the Valentine’s Day cards from the noticeboards. One stopped to set fire to the Styrofoam hearts that the girls had so painstakingly coloured and hung up in the week. The hearts flamed up and then sank in on themselves abruptly, like the cheeks of men in hospital; the stink of the burning plastic wafted to us. It pushed me back.

The door banged open, halving the porthole, and a boy charged over the library threshold. He stopped abruptly, judging the scene. There was mud – something splashed dark – on his school shoes, and he was going to track it into the library carpet. Wolf, I thought.

A bigger boy dashed in behind him and slammed the door shut. Pig.

I went back to the girl with the braces. I sat down beside her, under the table, and I put my arm around her. The thin one walked over, moving jerkily. I expected smoke and the smell of electrocution. He was emaciated, graceless, a spare coat-hanger of a boy. He was wearing a blazer even though it was February. He had pinned a heart to his arm.

‘Howzit, Miss!’ The girl behind me squeaked and pressed away. She had looked in the locker of her skull for instructions and found nothing in the way of words.

‘Just be quiet,’ the thin boy said, pointing at her. ‘Be quiet as a mouse.’ She stared at him, and then stuck her thumb in her mouth, the red elastics stretching on her braces.

He curled his finger back into a fist and shook his arm at me. The trophy heart blurred.

‘Check, Miss! On my
SLEEVE
!’ His voice cracked on the high endnote. He shoved his arm forward across my windpipe. The red heart throbbed. ‘How’s that for a … a …’ He turned to the fat boy at the door. ‘What are those fucken’ things called?’

The fat boy was in his shirtsleeves, but he was sweating, his eyes flicking to the corners of the room. I saw now that he was holding a knife, the heavy, serrated kind used for gutting fish, or held by a goblin in a role-play. With the other hand, he pressed the bridge of his glasses back up his nose. I knew that gesture.

‘Aphorism.’

‘Aphorism?’

‘I think.’

The thin boy turned back to me. ‘Is it an aphorism, Miss?’ I couldn’t speak because his arm was jammed against my throat, pushing me against the girl. I could feel her heart ticking on my back. The thin boy relaxed his arm a little. ‘Is it?’

I cleared my throat, the lid of my gullet closing off the top of my skull. ‘It’s just an expression. A saying.’

He raised his eyebrows mockingly, and his features pulled with them into his hairline.

‘Just an expression,’ he mimicked in a high voice. ‘A saying.’ He turned to the dumbstruck fat boy at the door. ‘We have a better saying. Say it, Kenny.’

The fat one looked down at the knife he was holding. ‘But you said—’

‘I said, Say it! It’s time!’

Sweat was streaking the fat boy’s collar. Somewhere they must have discarded their ties. Or, oh God, used them for something else. But he plucked his shirt away from his torso, and began to recite.

‘’
Tis not long after /But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve /For daws to peck at
.’

We were silent, the dumb covers of the novels ranged against him.

‘You forgot the last line, fuckwit. No wonder you need extra lessons.’

And it came to me. I’d had him for extra English, years ago, a pudgy little dyslexic boy who’d come to me for help and found Shakespeare. It wasn’t just words that Kenny got backwards.

He chuffed once, but thought better of the challenge when he saw the thin boy’s narrowed eyes. He cleared his throat, a pre-schooler prodded forward at a Christmas pageant.


I am not what I am
.’

The thin boy clapped. ‘
Othello
! Act One! Scene One! Line sixty-three! Thank you very much!’ He bowed with a flourish, bending at the waist like a magician. He grabbed my copy of the play and held it out. ‘You can check.’

He wanted me to ask him why, and so I obliged.

‘Why are you boys here?’ My throat vibrated against his forearm.

He smiled as if I was the lunatic. ‘It’s Valentine’s Day.’ His voice was patient. ‘We’re making a delivery.’

I looked over to the fat boy, who was scrubbing viciously at his face. His eyes had retreated into the swollen flesh.

‘Kenny? Will you tell me what’s going on? Is it just the two of you?’

But he couldn’t look at me. He turned instead to the poster behind him. It was divided into two columns.
GOOD RULES FOR BOOKS
said the left-hand side, accompanied by big green ticks.
BAD RULES FOR BOOKS
said the right: red crosses showed the gravesites of books. A handwritten note added by the librarian threatened punishment.
STUDENTS
who
DAMAGE BOOKS
will be
FINED
!

The thin one answered. ‘What’s the problem, asswipe? You said you wanted to pork her. It’s your special day.’

Kenny glanced away again, ashamed. He had looked at the floor his whole life. ‘But it’s the library,’ he eventually objected. The old rules had rushed up to meet him. ‘You can’t—’

‘Listen to me, you fat fuck,’ said the thin boy. ‘We can do whatever we want. No one is going to stop us.’ The thin boy pulled up the sleeve of his blazer and pumped his fist in the air. The symbol had been carved into his skin with a compass and made permanent in ballpoint pen. A capital A in a circle. The scabs had reddish rims to them: the itch must have been driving him mad.

‘Do you even know what that means?’ I asked him.

‘It
means
,’ he said patiently, ‘that we can do whatever we want.’ He grinned: his lips pulled back from his teeth until they disappeared into the surrounding skin.

‘Check this one.’ He yanked up his other sleeve to show the sequence of six engravings between elbow and fist.

I AM NOT WHAT I AM
.

When I closed my eyes the imprint was still there, burned on the retina, like looking too long at the sun. Entoptics. It was the studied savagery of it rather than the mutilation that was disturbing: someone who had gouged away at himself until he bled would have no mercy on anyone else. And no one was going to come. The double volume of the library had swallowed us, just as Assembly had taken the other girls into its mouth. We were floating in space: the dim globes of the lights were the old planets. I saw them reflected in the black eyes of the girl next to me.

That home-made tattoo helped me make up my mind. Of all the things that they were going to take from us today, there was still one left. The same choice, the old choice – whether to lie down when you’re told, or to stand up. Like a man, people say, as if women are excluded from honour and dignity. I saw our bodies like a rope bridge over the centuries, stretching back from the present to the beginning of time. It was made from us, that bridge. From our tongues and our fingers and our hair. It didn’t matter what we did now. They just wanted to hurt something.

I said, ‘Is that supposed to impress me?’

The thin boy leaned in. ‘It’s definitely going to make … an impression on you.’

‘You still have a choice. You don’t have to do this.’

‘Oh, no, Miss. It’s your choice. Left or right? No. I’ll decide,’ he said.

He reached out without breaking eye contact, and grabbed my wrist. I felt the bones grinding obscurely together.

‘Kenny!’ he sang. ‘Scalpel!’

The words slipped out before I could stop them, as if my heart had squeezed up into my throat and twanged the vocal cords.

‘Oh, Kenny—’

But I found that now I had spoken up, I had nothing to say. How do you appeal to people who don’t think you’re a person in the same way that they are? I wondered if the boys had already visited carnage on their own school first before they had come over; I wondered how many of them there were. I had a sudden vision of what they wanted: the windows smashed, the library in ashes, the last hard covers of the books smouldering on the carpet. And then my girls in the rubble, ranked like dolls in the cathedral stillness, their spaghetti straps snapped, their stick-on tattoos crazed with cracks. I saw the girl behind me, free of her braces at last.

But I never saw my own body among them – and believe me when I say that I looked hard for it.

I said the only thing I could think of. ‘Kenny, do you remember the rule?’

Kenny looked sadly at me through his glasses. The lenses were cloudy with grief. ‘I before e,’ he said. ‘Except after c.’ And he burst into tears. A string of snot bungeed out of one nostril. He tried to bury his face in his hands, but he had to drop the knife to do it. It clanged sideways against the door, and the girl behind me grabbed my arm and dug in at the sound. She was still sucking her thumb, her dentistry being destroyed like a citadel under siege.

He wept on in the awed quiet that follows an outburst of real emotion before an audience. The thin boy stared at him, disgust seeping through his pores, waiting for the end of the display.

Kenny wailed, ‘Ah, jeez! My dad is going to ki-hi-hill me!’ He had the look of a sleeper woken in an unfamiliar bed.

‘Then he’ll have to get in line,’ said the thin boy. ‘Pick. It. Up. You softcock.’

‘I ca-ha-han’t!’ wailed Kenny.

The thin boy turned on him.

‘Then
THROW
it here! You are such a fucken
GIRL
!’

Kenny bent by degrees to pick up the knife, as if he expected it to weigh more than it used to. The thin boy harassed him all the while. Behind me the girl removed her thumb from her mouth and whispered, ‘Why are they doing this?’ It was the question of children pushed off swings – and of whole villages swallowed by plague. When she saw I had no answer, she shrugged. The thin strap of her top fell down – she had no chest yet to hold it up.

BOOK: Cabin Fever
6.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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