It's Fine By Me
By Per Petterson, Don Bartlett
Graywolf Press Copyright © 1992 Forlaget Oktober, Oslo
All rights reserved.
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.
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.
'Are you sure those scars are so terrible?'
'They're so goddamn terrible,' I said. His hand moved towards my glasses and I took one step back and raised my fists. It was instinctive. Then he lowered his hands.
'You'd better mind your language,' he said, 'we don't want any swearing here.'
I said nothing, and we walked to the very end of the corridor where he stopped, knocked on a door and opened it, not waiting for an answer. He held it open and waved me in. They all looked at us. One girl giggled. I sensed him breathing down my neck and braced myself in case he should try anything stupid.
'This is Audun Sletten, the new boy I'm sure you have heard about. He's come to us from the countryside so please give him a warm welcome. He, too, likes the Beatles. Don't mind the sunglasses. They're glued to his nose.'
The girl giggled again. She had black hair down to her shoulders. Before leaving he stooped and whispered in my ear.
'I will call your mother about the scars, don't you worry.'
'We don't have a telephone,' I said aloud, but by then he was gone.
'Well not everybody has one,' the teacher said, 'but thank you for telling us.' Half the class laughed.
'You can have the vacant desk by the window.' He had gold-framed glasses, his hair was thinning at the front, but he looked as if he kept in shape because his shirt was tight round his chest and his biceps. I walked in front of the class, past the dais and along the row and sat down at the desk by the window. I hung my bag on the hook at the side. It had stopped raining. The sun cut through the clouds and the light turned the playground into a lake, and there were rafts on the shiny water, and fishing rods and a dam like the one up by Lake Aurtjern, and you could stand there and cast your line where the fish hugged the rocks. As I turned to face the blackboard everything went dark and it took some time before I could see through my sunglasses what was written there in chalk. WELCOME! it said. I ducked under the desk and folded my boots down again.
The bell rang and I was the last to leave, I didn't want anyone at my back. The teacher's name was Levang. He wanted to shake hands and be nice, so I shook his hand and mumbled something even I couldn't make out, and headed off. I crossed to the other side of the playground and leaned against the wire mesh. There was a football pitch beyond the fence, but it was deserted now, the dark shale steaming. To the right of me by the prefabs, kids were chasing each other, playing tag and splashing water. To the left, by the main building, the older ones were standing in clusters talking. A few girls were skipping rope, and coming straight towards me was a boy on crutches. I had seen him in the classroom, on the right, a little closer to the blackboard. I glanced left and right, but there was no one else by the fence. He had dark, curly hair and boots like mine, with KINKS written on the one and HOLLIES on the other. They were English pop groups, but I did not have any of their records. I did not have any records at all. We just had Jussi Björling, the Swedish opera singer, although I did have a transistor radio that I listened to in the night.
He stopped a few metres away from me, leaned on his crutches and smiled.
'Cool shades,' he said.
Cool crutches, I thought, but I didn't say it. They were cool in a way, like an extra part of his body he took with him everywhere, he didn't even notice, they were just there.
'I'll be rid of them in two months,' he said, following my gaze. 'I've had them for a year. They don't bother me now, but I can't wait.'
'What's wrong with your leg?'
'So what happened to the car?'
He laughed so much he almost fell off his crutches.
'I don't know. I didn't see it. Someone drove into me from behind, and I blacked out and woke up in my grandmother's spare room.' He laughed again, his whole face smiling. 'When I woke up, I thought I was in heaven, because the first thing I saw was one of those pictures where it says Jesus lives.'
'So you believe in God then?'
'No, I never have, but when I woke up in my grandmother's house, I thought perhaps I'd been wrong. Luckily then, I worked out where I was. That picture had always been there.'
He leaned on his crutches, dangling one leg over the grip and laughed non-stop. I had decided not to make friends with anyone at this school, but this bloke was hard to refuse.
'Something wrong with your eyes?'
'I can't take the bright light,' I said and felt bad about it, because that wasn't quite true, but it was truer than other things I had said. 'I start throwing up straight away.'
'Fair enough,' he said, and there was a silence, and I felt like a fraud. But then a ball rolled our way. I saw it first and was going to give it a kick, but then he saw it too, got ready, and using his crutches as a pommel horse, he thumped the ball with his good leg so hard it flew to the other end of the playground and smacked into the fence. It was impressive, but not something you did on a football field.
'Not bad,' I said, and he just kept on grinning and said:
'My name's Arvid, by the way,' and then the bell rang.
This time it was easier to enter the classroom, I was not the last one in, but I kept my glasses on. As long they left me in peace, this day might be OK.
When we were all seated at our desks, Levang went up to the dais and sat down as well, crossed his hands and let his gaze wander around the class until it settled on me. He smiled, I felt my neck go stiff, and then he said in a very friendly voice:
'Well, Audun. There wasn't much time in the first lesson, but now I was wondering if maybe you could tell us something about what it's like where you come from. Most of the class, you know, haven't lived anywhere else but here in Veitvet. What's it called, the place where you grew up?'
I should have known. He wasn't going to leave me in peace. He was a nice man, no doubt about it, and he was doing this for my sake, he wanted me to feel at home. I shrugged.
'I mean, it could be interesting for us to hear about. Did you live on a farm?'
'There's nothing to tell,' I said in a loud voice. The black-haired girl was giggling again.
Levang smiled, his face slightly flushed. 'Surely that can't be true,' he said. 'I mean, you're thirteen years old, after all. You must have experienced lots of things that are different from what we are used to here.'
'I said there's nothing to tell!'
'Are you sure?' he asked. Then I got up from the desk, grabbed my schoolbag from the hook on the side and made for the door. No one was giggling now.
Arvid turned to look at me, but his eyes told me nothing of what was in his mind.
'Oi, where are you going?' Levang said, and then he got up and took a few steps to cut me off. I felt my whole body tense up. I looked past his shoulder to the door, but there was no point in trying.
'I've always done my homework,' I said. 'I've always paid attention. You can see my school report if you like, but you have no right to ask me questions about things that have nothing to do with school.'
'Whoa there, Audun, I think you've got the wrong end of the stick. I didn't mean it like that,' he said and tried to catch my eye, but I was looking right past his ear and didn't answer.
'Well, let's talk about this some other time. Please would you go to your desk now.' I turned and walked back down between the desks. I took a quick glance at Arvid's face, and then I sat down and hung up my bag and stared out of the window.
Autumn has come, and I am on my newspaper round. Jimi Hendrix just died, they are playing 'Hey Joe' on the radio, and I have passed my driving test. I have my reefer jacket on, a pair of checked flares and a broad, red plaited belt with a loop buckle. Down the flare from the knee is a row of shiny buttons. It's the latest fashion, and if anyone had seen me I would have really stood out. But not many people are up, only a lamp in the odd window, and as I walk the hills up from the block where I live towards the depot in the shopping centre, it's a quarter past five. There is a frozen silver sheen on the lawns between the rows of terraced houses, and it's not yet morning. I have had my hair cut in a moderate-mod style after several years of long hair, and I am not sure it's such a big hit. So the gloom suits me fine.
I am tired, I still have homework to do and a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach tells me something at school is not going the right way. What I do, I do well enough. What I hear, I remember and understand, I am not an idiot, but it's as if the rest of my class has taken off on some journey they forgot to tell me about, as if there is a secret pact between teacher and students that does not include me. They know something I do not, and that's how it has been for a long time now.
The others stand waiting in front of the entrance, I am the last to turn up, but there are no newspapers in sight. Konrad is there, and Fru Johansen, and the entire Vilden family, the two children yawning and leaning against their father's back. This is what they live off, four newspaper rounds morning and afternoon, day in, day out. The oldest child, a girl, is fourteen years old, the boy twelve. They look as though they have just come out of the forest, you'd expect pine needles in their hair, but they live in Rådyrveien, in a flat, like the rest of us from Veitvet do. The mother is so ugly and bony that you have to like her, and the father, tall and distant, nods politely to the left, right and centre, and never says a word, just smiles and looks over our heads at something we don't quite comprehend. High plains and spruce forests, I have always imagined. The girl is so attractive it's hard to look her in the face.
'Hi, Audun,' says the boy called Tommy, and I say:
'Hi Tommy, cool jacket.' We often talk, I lend him old Cowboy and Indian books, and we are pals. He always seems to have a cold, a red patch under his nose, and he wears a striped, yellow jacket lined with fur and smiles happily, even though he has had the jacket on all week, and I have said 'cool jacket' every morning. I don't talk to his sister, her eyes are so big and brown that after walking the same route for several years I still don't know her name. But she looks at my new trousers.
We wait. It's the third day in a row that the newspapers are late. Konrad's moped is chugging away on its stand, he doesn't switch it off unless he has to and burns up a hell of a lot of petrol. He already wears a cap, a grey bobble cap without a bobble that he pulls down so hard his ears stick out, like the retarded kids you see in town sometimes, and you wonder why they have to dress them like that. He has woollen gloves on with the fingers cut off, and his fingers are black with the old ink. He is fifty years old and lives with his sister in the terraced house right across from the women's prison, and no one can wedge a newspaper behind a door handle like him. In one flowing movement his hand makes an arc in mid-air and the fat Aftenposten is lodged under the handle as hard as a board and never comes loose. How easy it looks, and yet I have tried it many times, and I cannot do it.
We hear the car before we see it, it's the only sound there is apart from Konrad's moped, and at full speed it sails up the incline from Veitvetveien, makes a U-turn in front of the depot and comes to a stop by our barrows. The driver jumps out, yanks the side doors back and hauls out the big bundles of newspapers. He drops them on the tarmac, with a loud groan each time, thwack, thwack they go, hitting the ground with a solid thud I've always thought had something to do with what is in the newspapers.
I pull out my two bundles and load them on to the barrow, cut the strings and check to see if there are any new subscribers. There are: two. I enter their names in my book and start dragging the barrow towards Grevlingveien. The others set off on their separate routes. Konrad up to Trondhjemsveien, Fru Johansen along Beverveien, which is where I live, and the Vilden family down to the houses along Rådyrveien. Tommy is carrying a huge bundle of papers. As usual he has cut the strings first, and now the papers start slipping and sliding in his arms, and the whole caboodle is on the verge of crashing to the ground. His sister comes over, bends down to give a hand, and they are so wonderful to watch it takes my breath away, but I too have siblings. One brother and a sister. That is, I had a brother. Last year he drove a Volvo Amazon that did not belong to him into the river Glomma and drowned. It happened just a few miles from where we used to live before we moved to Veitvet. It was an Amazon with all the extras: fox tail on the aerial, GT steering wheel and fur-lined seat covers at the front.
The girl in the passenger seat survived. She wept and said they hadn't touched a drop. I don't believe that for one moment. Egil had just turned fifteen the autumn before and didn't have a licence yet. After we moved to Oslo he went back as often as he could when he was old enough to go alone. I didn't. I only go there when I have to.
My sister moved out just after the accident. She is four years older than me, and of course she too had to go back. Now she lives with her boyfriend in Kløfta. He sells secondhand cars and makes money. I am sure he beats her, but I have never seen anything, and Kari does not say a word. If ever I catch him I'll beat him up. That won't cost me much. I have been training for years. With my newspaper money I bought a bench and weights.
I tell my mother. (Continues...)
Excerpted from It's Fine By Me by Per Petterson, Don Bartlett. Copyright © 1992 Forlaget Oktober, Oslo. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
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