I was thirteen years old and about to start the seventh
class at Veitvet School. My mother said she would go with
me on the first day we were new to the area, and anyway
she had no job but I didn't want her to. It was the 18th
of August, the sky was all grey, and as I opened the school
gate and went into the playground, it started to rain. I
pushed my sunglasses up my nose and walked slowly across
the open expanse. It was deserted. Midway, I stopped and
looked around. To the right there were two red prefabs,
and straight ahead lay the squat, blue main building. And
there was a flagpole with a wet, heavy flag clinging to the
halyard. Through the windows I could see faces, and those
sitting on the inside pressed their noses against the panes
and watched me standing in the rain. It was bucketing
down. It was my first day, and I was late.
By the time I reached the entrance, my hair was streaming and my shirt was soaking wet. I took it off and wrung it hard and wiped the sunglasses on my jeans before I put them back, and I pulled my shirt over my head. Then I went in.
The first thing I saw was the Norwegian Constitution. It was on the wall, behind glass, just to the right. The second thing was the headmaster's office. There was no mistaking it, because there was a sign on the door. I headed straight for that sign without slackening my pace in case someone was watching me, and I would hate to make them think I didn't know where I was going. I knocked and stared straight at the door while I was waiting, and when a voice shouted 'COME IN!', I opened the door and did not look to either side.
It was a large room with shelving along the walls, a spirit duplicator in a corner and a desk. Behind the desk sat a large, rather fat man. He raised his head from a pile of papers and looked me over. Through the sunglasses it was hard to see if he was smiling, but I don't believe he was. 'The tops of your boots,' he said. I looked down. Like everybody else I wore brown rubber boots folded down over my calves and on the lining I had written beatles in block capitals. I crouched and turned them up.
'I can't think of anything I dislike more,' he said.
I shrugged and waited. He sat eyeing me and there was a long silence before he said:
'Now take off your sunglasses. I like to know who I'm talking to.'
I shook my head. 'You won't?' I shook my head again.
'May I ask why?' His face was a balloon, a moon with dark patches.
'I have scars.'
'Terrible scars round my eyes.'
'Is that so?' He slowly nodded with that round head of his and stroked his chin. 'May I have a look?'
'No?' He was lost for words. He drummed a pencil. 'Well, what's your name then?'
'Audun Sletten. I'm supposed to begin the seventh class here.'
'I see, so you're Audun Sletten, are you? I've been waiting half an hour for you.'
'I got lost.'
'You got lost?'
'Is that possible? There's only one way down here, isn't there?'
I shrugged. He felt unsure now. I knew he could not see my eyes. I was the Phantom. He sighed and stood up.
'You'll be starting in the B class. It's mixed. We have a girls' class, a boys' class and a mixed class in the seventh year. Follow me.'
He walked towards the door with small, quick steps, even though he was a big man, and heavy, like John Wayne, slightly knock-kneed, and I jumped to the side so he could pass, and then we were in the corridor. I trudged after him. Compared with the school I used to go to, this one seemed never-ending. Halfway down the corridor he stopped and turned.
Per Petterson. Excerpt from It's Fine By Me. Copyright © 1992 by Forlaget Oktober, Oslo. English translation copyright © 2011 by Don Bartlett. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org
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No Man's Land
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