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Sport 5: Spring 1990

Maurice Gee — From The Burning Boy —         Chapter One

page 87

Maurice Gee

From The Burning Boy
        Chapter One

The boy with the burn scars on his face waited for his sister at the gates. Rain beat on his parka and made a shallow puddle round his feet. He held his fingers stiff and seemed to count the drops of water leaking from the tips.

His name was Duncan Round. He was fifteen.

The woman watching from her office window was Norma Sangster, principal of Saxton College for Girls. She peered through the oak leaves at his face. 'Poor boy,' she thought, and 'lucky to be alive,' but wanted responses more orderly than that. She could tolerate contradictions and enjoy paradox but did not like emotions pulling her in two directions at once. She did not like, especially, 'better if he had died'.

The town was Saxton and the season spring; the rain a sharp unseasonable storm. It came from the southeast, slanting down the hills and crossing the plain, one of a family of squalls falling from the same iron cloud.

When it stopped Duncan Round turned back his hood. He combed his fingers through his hair and looked at the girls in the windows of the typing room. He moved his eyes along as though trying to sort out which one he would have.

And why should scars disqualify? Norma thought. She supposed he must live more in his mind than other boys. Though he stood there unconcerned, there might be rich fulfillments taking place in his halfbald puckered cranium. Or monstrous orgiastic goings-on; although a fearsome sadness was more likely, for was he not a prisoner locked away for the rest of his life?

She did not like that thought. Far too easy; too evasive. She tried to see Duncan Round with a measuring eye. The burning had created a landscape that someone with an interest in textures might admire. Like papier mache tinted with lemon and rose-pink. The ridges looked sharp

The Burning Boy will be published by Viking in November.

page 88enough to cut your fingers on. Good boy, she thought, admiring his acceptance of all this. Better to think of strength and will than screams of pain inside that damaged skull—too horrible—or shouts of rage; though rage she would have given her acceptance, qualified.

He was keeping the girls quiet at least. She could almost feel the frisson there. No doubt some would be disgusted too, that was understandable, they needed time to learn compassion. And a few would make disgusting jokes. Norma felt that Duncan would understand; then was annoyed at the way he worked on her. She left the window and wrote Stella Round on her desk pad. She would tell the girl her brother should wait somewhere else, it would be kinder—though kinder to whom was hard to say. The girls in the typing room might benefit from waking up. And she herself needed no protection, although it was the fourth or fifth time this thundery spring she had been disturbed by Duncan Round. Kinder to the boy then? She could not even be sure of that. He was, in a way, impossible to see, although he stood there so sharply defined.

He had turned his back on the school and was guiding raindrops on Stella's car windscreen into streams and making them run to the bottom. Methodical, with his childish finger at work. Perhaps his brain was damaged—she must ask Josie. Before the accident he had caught no one's attention, the ordinary one among the Rounds, the Round who was not brilliant, she had heard; oppressed, no doubt, and stunted in his growth, by those clever sisters and charismatic dad and arty mum, a weed in that garden of scented shrubs. Appalling people, in some ways, the Rounds, working so hard at their cleverness and straining at spontaneity. One saw the sinews stand in their throats as their talk and laughter rang out. Duncan had never made a place with them. She wondered that Tom Round had done so little to bring him forward. Prize-winning son would have set him off just as winning daughters set him off and made him shine. Perhaps though, being early on the scene, Tom had understood there wasn't any hope and had let the boy take his own way; which ended with that flash of fire in the double garage.

Ended? Had he ended? Duncan Round at the point where he could go no further? What evidence was there for that? He refused to go back to school but that marked only one sort of termination. There were teachers who had no sense of life after school, who seemed to feel that lives were three years long, or four, or five, and five years measured success; but for Norma world and future were the prize. She would not think of end for that boy there—insufficient evidence—he was simply at page 89a point on his way. It was though, quite plainly, an altered way, there was evidence for that.

She sat down and her chair squeaked, and her desk, as she pressed her hands on it, made the little sound, half groan, half purr, she had come to think of as conjunctive. Desks became extensions of oneself and took on functions. Hers connected her with staff and girls, with corporate being, separate cells. These she was empowered to order and control and invest with spirit if she could—a possessive act? Conjunctive act? Each had truth of a sort; and that would indicate a conflict in her. She was pleased by it for she often seemed ordinary to herself. In fact, at times, her ordinariness appalled her and was a shameful secret she must keep. She became imposter, deceiver, always on the point of being found out, and quantities of work were the only cure. She must then, before being wholly restored, recognise its high quality. She was renowned for being a worker—and put down too as a frustrated widow using up her sexual energy there.

That judgement troubled her from time to time, although she could refute it with evidence—husband, lovers, troop of men friends wanting (some of them aiming) to be more. She put her uneasiness by as psychoreductive, a female burden she would not take on. Men weren't asked to carry extra weight. Yet the pressures and frustrations of her role must affect her differently, she knew.

There was pressure on her now. She had the brief to finish for the new gymnasium and it was hard, in summing up, not to show her dissatisfaction that the school was getting a gym before a new library building. The library would be put off for years now—always a harder thing to show mental than physical needs. She did not deny it was one of her jobs to keep nine hundred girls bouncing fit, and the gym would be a good one, she'd see to that; but the pinched little double-room of books on the second floor was a deformity in her school. Talk of extending herself! It was a sore she could not help scratching. The ghetto, someone had called it, and indeed it was as much as one could do not to simply throw books in and lock the door.

Norma set her mind and pen to work. She wrote a paragraph and chopped out words. Compression was one of her skills, which she used in speech, when she remembered, as well as in writing. Some people took it for severity, for a gauntness in her mind, but it was more a matter of aesthetics. And, in a curious way, it was a means of giving herself weight, of increasing her mass while reducing her size. She had come to think it healthy, callisthenics for the mind and for language both, with the page 90rewards of better lifting, better moving and, incidental to it, flashes of beauty. She did not expect those in her brief but one never knew. Neatness and sharpness had a way of flaring out.

Desiree Norma, born 1941. In the euphoria of her birth 'Desiree' seemed a good idea to her parents. Later it troubled them. A name like that might open ways a good girl should not follow. So they dropped it and Desiree was Norma, Norma Schwass. She grew up on a dairy farm in a valley south of Saxton. Every two or three years there was a flood and Norma remembers walking in her gumboots in mud inches thick on the sittingroom carpet and sweeping grey water out of the kitchen with a yardbroom. One year the family had to climb on the roof. They were rescued by two soldiers in a dinghy. She never wanted to be a farmer after that, or marry one, and was glad to be away at boarding school from eleven to seventeen—at Saxton College for Girls, where she's principal now.

Her degree is in biology and maths. After university she went to teachers college and she has a secret about that (she'd tell it to her friends if they asked). When the office lady came round with the oath of allegiance for the students to sign Norma refused. She was not the only one, there were two Jews. Up in the principal's office they swore on the Old Testament; but Norma still said no. She would not, she said, allow the state carte blanche but must retain her right to make her own mind up on certain things. She became more aggressive than she'd meant to because she was not being fully honest. Fifty-one per cent, she told herself in later life. Forty-nine was her desire to get out of teaching while she could. She needed the whole wide world, not just classrooms, but had no way of paying back the bursary that had kept her at university for three years. So she planned to be thrown out because of her beliefs.

Go away and think it over, the principal said. We can't have you without the oath. Look, it doesn't mean much, sign it, eh? I'll be in touch again in a day or two.

He never was in touch, not over that. Norma learned how some problems are solved simply by being put out of the way. She wonders if he forged her signature. But playing the incident back, as she does now and then, she's able to think of herself as a rebel—though she sniffs and says, Not much of one. It helps her when she's enforcing rules she doesn't believe in. There's a lot of that at Saxton College for Girls.

Sangster, the man she married, was a physical education teacher at a neighbouring school. Norma had decided to get her country service out of the way and had gone to a town south of Auckland. One day she took page 91a busload of children fifteen miles through the gorge to the next town to play rugby and hockey against the school there. She disliked Sangster at first because of his good looks. She did not believe a man so handsome could have a full share of honesty, even though he muddied himself refereeing the rugby match and sweat dripped from the end of his nose. He had a pompous way of speaking and used bigger words than he needed. 'That's what I'd call an heroic encounter,' he said of the match. She never admired him much, she knew he had an ordinary mind and trivial interests, although he was good at pretending and easily picked up the right thing to say; but she was passionate about having him. When he died in a blizzard on the Copland Pass four years after they were married she thought she would die too, she felt weight robbed from her and saw her body float away lighter than air. It was not grief so much as loss of being; and was a condition she recovered from. She felt herself taking on weight almost as soon as the body was down from the mountain. She found she had little sense of Sangster's personality, and her sense of his person, depending on gratifications and excitements, quickly became a memory. How did one grieve for someone who had not been properly there? At times she accused herself of being deficient in feeling, but soon was able to put that aside. Her four-year infatuation with Donald Sangster—his perfection of torso, biceps, skull shape, tooth and tongue—devalued her and she wished for a dead husband with crooked teeth and a stringy neck and lop ears and a mind. Why had she not married for love? The things she might have done if she had loved. But she was not troubled frequently. She never felt freer in her life than in the year after Sangster's death, even though she cried a good deal of the time.

There are those who say Norma has come so far—principal of a big girls' school in her middle forties—because she's a widow. If it hadn't been for that blizzard she'd have had a family and that would have been the end of her. She owes it all to Sangster, they seem to say. Norma doesn't argue with nonsense of that sort. Why bother? After failing to escape from teaching she made up.her mind to get to the top. Ambition made her lively, made her free. She worked hard and loved her distant goal. Sangster was an indulgence and in those times when she could not do without him she told herself he wouldn't keep her, no fear of that, she'd keep him. She saw no reason why two children—no more than two—could not be integrated into her career. Integrated was the term she used. Later on, when she found it evasive, she realised her marriage would have failed fairly soon, and if there'd been children they would page 92have gone with her husband. She does not like that knowledge and is glad it never had to be put to the test. Stronger than her sense of her ordinariness is her sense of her worth. She knows that she can do most things she sets her mind to.

Her career goes well, but not simply because she is determined that it shall. She's intelligent, decisive, has a sense of when to move and when draw back, and gravity and lightness at proper times, and social ease, cultured interests, good voice and looks and taste. (Voice between the Oxford and the Auckland, words delivered not in the shape of an egg but a mussel-shell shape.) She moves her body slowly, she's big and buttery. It's an easy way of shifting, nothing languid. She's deceptive and makes you look again and see that she's not heavy but sure. Yet with this she gives the impression of being untried. She's on the point of finding something out. Norma is not finished, rounded off. She has warmth and diffidence and shyness in her nature and finds herself bewildered by contradictory feelings. She has a quick instinctive sense of good and evil (it fades away most often in happiness or uneasiness). She trembles before a nameless horror, but cannot tell whether it exists 'out there' or in her mind. People take intimations of her complexity from half-spoken words and silences, and from the way she laughs or does not laugh, but they can't hold on and come away believing she has abilities not shown them yet. This, perhaps, is why she was appointed to her job though several better-qualified women applied for it too.

She meets selfishness and generosity daily, sees violence more frequently than tenderness, for the reason that it's easier to see, and does not take these things as evidence of battles in our nature of any deep spiritual import, or as defeats or victories, although she'll place them, often for illustration or argument, in a moral sphere. 'Spiritual' is a term she tries not to use and the concept one she cannot hold. It gets away from her and she has come to think 'spirit' not a useful word and chooses 'mind', 'energy', 'life', 'courage', 'vital force'—but finds she has to bring them out in clusters. It makes her impatient. Language, which should be sharp, is too often blunt.

'Soul' she does not say, except when she comes on it in morning prayers, part of her job. She does not believe in God, or disbelieve, regards him as a case that cant be proven, but thinks it useful for young people to have him as a reference point. He's a metaphor for the thingthat word cluster, spirit if you must—lying beyond the spatial-temporal world; an attempt at an explanation. It's good for young minds to go out there, whether by tracking down or leap of faith. Norma puts her page 93uneasiness by. She offers a dry word or two about her role in guidance. Smalls evasions, small dishonesties, are part of the shifting ground on which we stand; but stand we do, Norma says, and we defy the larger harmful things.

She's sometimes able to say what those things are. But 'good' and 'evil' are not available. The parsons have pinched them, one of her men friends said—about the only useful thing he gave her. Excellent, she'll say, instead of good. Horrible, dreadful, she'll say, feeling ill. Once she had to run to the lavatory and be sick while reading a book about Gestapo atrocities. None of this seems extraordinary to her.

There's behaviour, she's inclined to believe, beyond conscience. There's a disposition in us towards love or wickedness. Norma sees Original Sin as a great explanation and wishes it would do for her, but of course it wont, because it leaves out too much she's convinced of, leaves out knowledge of all sorts. 'Ha!' she says to that, caught in a trap. She has given up thinking about it. Just now and then she's lifted up by an example of love, or wants, as she puts it, to resign from the human race. She does not understand how ready she is with these responses or how deeply they affect her behaviour.

Her friends describe her as mature and sensible. Some say wise and sensitive. They all agree that even when she's quiet you know she's there.

The brilliant interval came to an end, colour went out, and Norma reached the window in time to see hail strike. It rattled on the window panes and bounced like tiny balls in the street. School was due to finish in seven minutes and she considered having the bell delayed. Some of the pieces of ice looked big and sharp enough to cut the flesh. Then she thought of strawberries and apples and tried to see where the storm was coming from. There looked to be fine weather at the port, and the other way the sun was lighting the top of Stovepipe Hill. With any luck the hail was in a band and would miss her brother's berry farm and John Toft's apple orchard. A storm had wiped out Clive's crop three seasons ago and she pictured him standing in his vinerows, letting today's hail cut his face. Clive could not help making big gestures, usually of despair and rage. She had better telephone him as soon as the storm was over. And telephone John Toft. She saw him watching from his back porch, smiling enigmatically and stroking his chin.

Duncan Round had taken an unusual posture too. He had pulled up his hood and squatted so the skirt of his parka touched the pavement and vas safe and dry inside a shell with hailstones shooting off in arcs as page 94though a force in him repelled them. High over his back a green field on Stovepipe sank into a cloud-hole and was gone. Hail came in harder strokes, with a fierce downward thrust. Norma shivered—but smiled at the tame end of it all, the little coy curved domestic bounce on path and lawn. The storm drew itself in and moved away. Saxton increased in size; it came out, enamelled, in the sun. The bell for the end of school rang at that moment. Norma found it all appropriate. There was a balance in all this.

The girls walked out hesitating, giving little cries at a world so fresh. They scooped up hail and tried it on their tongues. They looked at the receding storm, pointing as though at an aeroplane, and turned to see the huge bright sky on the other side. Norma watched them possessively.

Duncan Round took a handful of hailstones from the angle of the car windscreen and seemed to weigh them in his palm. He too tried their coldness on his tongue. Belinda, his young sister, crossed the road with her school pack low on her back in the style that was fashionable and turned his hand over, spilling the hail. She took out her handkerchief and wiped his fingers dry. Norma found it touching, even though Duncan did not need this sort of care. Belinda was the nicest of the Rounds by a long long way, and no less clever than her sisters. One somehow expected kindness to reduce cleverness but in this case it was not so. Mind you, the girl did not waste kindness on her friends but treated them in the Round way. They shouted to her across the street but she took no notice. She gave Duncan a piece of chewing-gum.

Now the ten-speed bikes came down, cutting neat parabolas among the turning cars. Norma put her window up and watched for nearmisses. She admired the skill and energy of the girls and wished they showed it more in class. There was Hayley Birtles, with hissing tires, making Stella Round step back—that took some doing—and throwing a word at her, ugly no doubt, as she went by. And there was the shoplifting gang, subdued now that they had been caught, riding in a bunch for solidarity. Would they break up and go straight home as they had been ordered or was it all a waste of time? Spray rose from their tires and wet the legs of the footpath mums.

This spinning off of bits, this disintegrating of school at the end of the day, was sometimes painful to Norma but filled her with relief at other times. Today she felt elated and regretful—that the world outside was beautiful and her girls should live in it, and that all this imperfection, all this unmade, unmakeable, stuff should be loosed on it.

Stella Round crossed the road and got into her car. She opened the page 95rear door for Duncan, then said something sharp to him and handed him the key. He took his wet parka off and put it in the boot. He seemed too thinly clad standing there, in white T-shirt (with words on it?) and washed-out jeans and sneakers without socks. His face and arm and finger-backs were baby-naked. The burning had almost glazed him, Norma thought. She hoped it had been too shocking for pain. Pain must have come later, in hospital; and was there even now perhaps? She did not know much about the pathology of burns, but surely nerve endings were affected.

Stella, discomposed—one almost never saw that—leaned out her door and called him in. The words on his T-shirt made Norma laugh. How marvellously inappropriate: Hump your ass off. (Tom Round's little joke, no doubt. He had recently visited 'the U.S. of A.') Duncan had probably pulled it on without reading it; or perhaps-was he capable of malice?—had meant to embarrass his sister. He did not hurry into the car but gave girls walking by a chance to read.

Stella leaned back. She grabbed his ruined arm and hauled him in and the Rounds drove away.

The road was warming up and starting to steam. Teachers hurried out along with the girls: Sandra Duff, in her Indian cottons and silver bells, looking too fierce and concentrated for such filmy wear (what indiscretion had she committed? there was a new one every day); and Helen Streeter in leather suit and leather hair, untouched, seeming untouched, by her day relating over crayons and clay to a hundred girls; and David Dobson, like a bearded tramp, with whisky flask shaped to the curve of his buttock (no secret from the girls, though he hunched in dark places to drink from it); and Lex Clearwater, in his red utility with the rust-eaten panels, looking like Heathcliff escaping to the moors. He had started as a heart-throb but now he was a joke.

The teachers were no more finished than the girls. They were lumpy with their imperfections; a paradox Norma wrestled with. She did not leave her own imperfections out and sometimes found herself wanting to teach only simple verifiable facts-that the two angles of the hypoteneuse, so on, so on. There seemed to be not much else she could justify. Do this and this, not that, or else you'll hurt someone, and you'll be unhappy yourself. She looked at her half-happy and damaged staff, and was appalled by the certainties they uttered and felt she must not let them dump their rubbish on the girls; and yet she uttered certainties herself, dogma herself. And was half-happy, damaged, too. Yet she must `present a perfect shape.

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Two equal sides of Norma broke apart. Hard work, not argument, would make her whole.

She telephoned Clive. Daphne, his wife, said he was out in the boysenberries. The storm had gone by on the other side of the inlet. Come and see us soon, Daphne said. Norma telephoned John Toft and let the phone ring for a minute or two. John never ran to answer it but walked in from the yard at his normal pace and shrugged and turned away if it stopped. Today he did not come, was almost certainly too far down the orchard to hear.

She hung up and went back to her brief.