Borderliners, p.1Peter Høeg
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What is time?
* * *
We ascended toward the light, five floors up, and split up into thirteen rows facing the god who unlocks the gates of morning. Then there was a pause, then in came Biehl.
Why the pause?
When asked straight out about his pauses by one of the bright girls, Biehl had first gone absolutely still. Then he—who normally never referred to himself as “I”—then he had said, slowly and with great gravity, as though he was surprised by the question, and perhaps even by his own reply, “When I speak, you should listen, first and foremost, to my pauses. They speak louder than my words.”
And so it was with the interval between the hall going absolutely still and him coming in and up to the podium. An eloquent pause. His own words.
The morning song was followed by a pause, the Lord’s Prayer recited by Biehl pause, a short hymn pause, a traditional, patriotic song pause, and finish, and he left the hall as he had come, briskly, almost running.
What feeling was there in the hall while this was going on?
There was no special feeling, really, I said, it was early in the morning and people were tired, and could we finish now, I was getting a headache, and it was late, the bell had gone already. I pointed out the time.
Not yet, she said, there was yet another relationship she wanted to call to my attention, and that was the relationship to pain. When pain made itself felt during an experiment—like now, with this headache—one should never just break off and walk away from it. Instead one should turn upon it the light of awareness.
That is how she spoke. The light of awareness.
And so we turned upon the fear.
* * *
Biehl had written his memoirs, In Grundtvig’s Footsteps. It contained the names of all the teachers who had ever occupied positions at the school, all the moves to bigger and better premises, a long string of achievements, and the rewards for such.
But not one word about the relationship to the pupils, and so nothing either about the fear. Not one word, not even in the pauses or in the spaces between the lines.
At first it was impossible to understand. Because that was the truly significant factor. Not the respect, not the admiration. But the fear.
Later it became clear that this reticence was part of the more far-reaching plan. And then I understood.
* * *
We stood utterly still during assembly. That was the first thing I tried to get through to her.
At a certain time every day you were let into the assembly hall, 240 people with 26 teachers and Biehl, and then the doors were shut, and you knew that from this moment for the next quarter of an hour you had to stay completely still.
The prohibition was total, giving rise therefore to a certain tension in the room. As though the rule, by covering everything and by tolerating nothing, called for its own violation. As though the tension in the room was part of the plan.
* * *
Over the years it had proved impossible to have the prohibition observed absolutely. But those few violations that had occurred had, in fact, only served to confirm and reinforce the rule.
Those few times it happened, there had been a faint commotion among the pupils, a hemming and a hawing, and a rustling that spread like an infection and, for a while, could not be stopped. A critical situation, one of the most difficult for a man in Biehl’s position. The passive resistance of a crowd of small people.
On these occasions he had been brilliant. He did not try to pretend that nothing had happened. He bowed his head and took the disturbance upon himself. He stood like that, head bowed, while the tension in the room rose, and eventually the fear stifled the disturbance.
At no time had he looked directly at anyone; he carried on with assembly as usual. Even so, you knew that he knew who had started it. That he had located the source, and knew how it should be stopped.
* * *
Another teacher, who should have been there, never came. Instead, the door to the classroom stood open, and we waited for a pause so long that what we had known all along was confirmed for us. Then Biehl came in, very quick and brisk.
“Sit down,” he said. “Jes—remain standing.”
He needed some time to get into his stride. Not much, even though it felt that way after I became ill, probably only a couple of minutes. Just long enough to go over what had happened. That Jes had disrupted assembly for his schoolfellows, disrupted a school timetable that was already overstretched, abused the trust put in him, and, suddenly, the blow fell.
Very fast, and yet with a weight that jolted the body free of the desk and out into the aisle.
Just after it struck, there was a brief pause, and even though this was what held the key to the fear, it was so brief that it went unnoticed, I said, let’s not talk about it anymore.
“On the contrary,” she said. “That’s exactly what we have to talk about.”
So I tried: When the blow fell, first there was a brief lull, when the shock had brought everything to a standstill. Then came two things at once. The relief that everything had now been put to rights, and something else—something deeper, far-reaching—that occurs when an adult hits a child hard, something that has nothing further to do with the pain from the blow.
Back by the blackboard Biehl adjusted his clothing. Like a man who has been to the toilet. Or with a hooker. And has now put behind him something that was difficult but necessary.
* * *
She did not understand me, so we went on.
“How often does it happen?” she asked.
Before my illness there had been no reason to wonder about how often. But now, when it was necessary to be aware of time all the time, it turned out to be very seldom, less than once a week in any one class. Quite precisely administered.
It was early to start initiating her into the inner truths, but I did it anyway. There was a law, it was Karin Ærø who had given this away, that dated from antiquity. When gi
So it was, too, with the relationship between time and punishment. Of those violations that were proven, only just over half evoked punishment.
Sort of like a golden mean of violence.
* * *
How many times had I, personally, been hit?
To this I was able to reply in the negative, as far as my time here at the school—that was, two years and two months—was concerned; in all that time, until recently, I had never once been hit or been given detention, nor, until I became ill, so much as a reprimand or an “L” for Late.
“No,” she said, “when you are scared enough, maybe it is even a sort of freedom not to be punished.”
She did not mean any harm by it. It just slipped out. It was more or less directed at herself. But it gave away the fact that she felt, for me, an instinctive aversion. And since I had nothing to lose I remarked that—before Biehl’s, in my past life, especially at Himmelbjerg House and the Royal Orphanage—I had taken and dished out more than most. She would maybe have been hard put, here at the school, to find a greater expert in the field of rattled jaws. Short of having gone to Biehl himself.
She asked what he would have said to that.
* * *
There had been a case at the school a year earlier. A pupil—it was Jes Jessen, with whom I had shared a room and who, later, was expelled—had allegedly sustained a hearing impairment after being punished by Biehl.
It was never proved that the two things had anything to do with each other, but on that occasion Biehl was under such pressure that he was brought very close to an explanation. He had said that the school, as far as was possible, respected the ban on corporal punishment generally in force in Danish primary schools, but, in his experience, a cuff around the ear had never done anyone any harm.
It was said so deeply that everyone breathed a sigh of relief. He certainly did have experience, after all he had been hitting children regularly for forty years.
At the same time, it was not untrue. It was not the blow itself that was of primary importance but what happened around it, just before and just after. But which was not usually visible, not to the naked eye. Because it was over so quickly. But still went on for a very long time afterward.
* * *
To describe this fleeting but profound effect she suggested the word “abasement,” which I accepted. So she had, after all, understood.
The external data, I mean that outside of the laboratory, were at all times easily accessible.
In the month of May 1971, after almost two years at the school, two years during which no one was able to point the finger at me for anything, when it had been recorded in my file that I was well adjusted and of average intelligence, all of a sudden it became hard for me to be on time in the mornings. On Saturdays and Sundays, when the others were at home and I was alone at the school, I slept during the day or not at all, and was awake at night, and it affected the rest of the week.
I consulted the school doctor, so as not to arouse any suspicion of laziness or lack of zeal, and so that it might be established that this was an illness one could not, personally, do anything about, not even with two alarm clocks, one of which was very big.
The school fell under the jurisdiction of the district medical officer. He prescribed that I should be woken every morning by Flakkedam, and for a while I did turn up on time, but very tired. At that point I had seen the grand plan, and I began to fear a catastrophe.
That is why I sent the letter. It was the first letter of my life; there had never been anyone to write to.
* * *
I had seen her in the playground, with Biehl, under Soli Deo Gloria.
Biehl always stood under the inscription over the archway in the morning, to greet those who turned up on time, and to identify those who came late. From the moment one started to wake up, one remembered that he would be standing there. So that, in a way, he was already present, between one’s dreaming and one’s waking.
* * *
One had no contact with the other classes; the senior classes, especially, were far away, she was two years ahead of me. At one point she had been absent, for six months maybe. When she came back she was a boarder, no one knew why. At that time I had seen her, but still only from afar.
One morning I saw her in the playground, she was late, it seemed wrong, she was not the type.
When she was there again, a couple of days later, I began to count; over fourteen school days I counted her six times. Then I knew that something was wrong.
* * *
The sixth time, Biehl had drawn her aside.
He had taken her over to the wall, and allowed everyone else to slip past. He was bending over her. He was concentrating hard. This offered the possibility of getting close, so one could see their faces. She was leaning forward a bit, toward him, and she was looking straight at him. I was close enough to see her eyes. It was like she was looking for something.
Then the thought came that we might be of benefit to each other.
* * *
A long time passed without my hearing anything. In the end I was close to giving up. I had found her in the class pictures in the school yearbooks, her name was Katarina. One day, on the way to assembly, she was right behind me on the stairs.
“Library,” she said.
It was the first time I heard her voice. She said just the one word.
* * *
Being anywhere else than down in the playground after the bell had rung was prohibited, the only exception was the library, which was next to the staff room. One could sit there in the lunch period if one wanted to improve one’s mind.
Now it was empty, apart from Katarina and me.
She sat for a long while trying to bring herself to say something.
“I do it on purpose,” she said. “I come late on purpose.”
That had been obvious back in the playground. When Biehl closed in on anyone, they would try to lean away. It just happened, it was a rule. She had leaned toward him, and looked him in the eye. As if to make the most of the moment.
She read aloud from a piece of paper. It looked like a letter.
“‘Apart from the bit about sleep and about concentrating, there are also other things that have not been mentioned to anyone. Whole days that disappear, and fleeting moments that become like an eternity.’
“Tell me about it,” she said.
Now, not that I wanted to deny anything, but whoever had written that letter, I said, was definitely taking a big risk, admitting to being so ill. What do you suppose we could do to reduce this risk? Might he perhaps receive some information in return?
“I am conducting an experiment,” she said.
That is how she spoke. Conducting an experiment.
“Can one be sure that one will turn up on time afterward?” I said.
To this she replied in the negative.
If she had promised anything I would not have believed her, and so it would not have been possible to proceed. But now she was speaking the truth, so I tried.
* * *
The first thing I tried to explain to her was assembly; it was because of a law that Karin Ærø had revealed.
It was not normal for Karin Ærø to speak. Normally she started people off on a song and then walked along the rows to hear who sang true and who sang out of tune, and in this way to decide who was in the choir, who was out, and who was on the borderline. But while she listened, sometimes she also spoke, and what she said then was often very important: one of the profound laws, for example—like the one about the golden mean.
On one such occasion she had said that the beginning of a piece of music, if it was an intelligent and precise piece, in very short form invariably determined the rest of its content and course.
Just as with assembly. In
* * *
That is why I began there, but at first it was not possible. It seemed unthinkable that she could ever understand, because she was a girl, but mostly because she was on the inside, and had always taken time for granted.
Then the bell rang.
She had no wristwatch, one could not help but notice. But that was not what was most important. What was most important was that she did not hear the bell.
It took me by surprise, but I heard it.
She did not hear it. Because she was listening to me. Then she did not have all the answers in advance.
So I told her about assembly and the fear. While time passed and the risk of our being discovered grew.
Biehl’s Academy was a reward after the third rape attempt, the one made against me.
At that time I was at the Royal Orphanage at number 109 Strand Drive. It was also known as the Thorup Institute, but the pupils called it Crusty House—because of the crusts they had to make do with instead of proper bread.
After it happened—because Valsang, who did it, was a teacher at the school and because there was so much behind it—the school board was most concerned and I decided to bring some pressure to bear upon it.
At that point it had become clear that this was not a good place to stay. Oscar Humlum—who had saved me in the telephone booth and was my only friend; who had also come from a home—had been there a year longer than me. He only survived by taking money for eating various things. It was one krone for an earthworm and five kroner for a frog, so it was obvious where it was leading.
At that point I had had my first difficulties with time, and on the evening of the day on which he had saved me, I tried to tell him that time, at the school, was being pulled downward in a spiral. Since we were now both witnesses we should try to make a deal with them so that we could both get away.
It was as though he did not understand me. He dreamed of being a cook on the Swedish ferries, I thought maybe he imagined they had found him a place as an apprentice. He did not answer me, he just shook his head. Nor did he say anything later on, in the office, but he did bring some pressure to bear on them just by being there. They promised they would try to get me into Biehl’s Academy, which, now and again in past years, had taken in children with behavioral difficulties from the homes, and which had a good reputation.
Borderliners by Peter Høeg / History & Fiction / Mystery & Detective have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes