People in the Basement
THE PEOPLE IN THE BASEMENT
By Audur Jonsdottir
Pp 113 – 116 + 140 – 142: Victoria Cribb
* * * *
One day Fjóla whispered to Klara that Siggi was a disgusting monster. The rumour had been doing the rounds for two years, since Berta didn’t exactly shirk her duty.
They were sitting at a low school desk while their teacher Pétur lectured to deaf ears about marzipan production in Lübeck; their assignment was to cut out pictures of factory workers and stick them to cardboard. Klara was too stressed to take in what Fjóla said. She was waiting for Pétur to open the cupboard and discover something dubious on drawing paper. Fjóla would have to do the explaining, she was his pet.
“Totally disgusting, seriously!”
Fjóla dared to raise her voice. “Siggi, he’s disgusting. He’s as crazy as Barking Benedikta.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I just know.” Fjóla put on a mysterious expression and pretended to listen to Pétur’s droning. He had begun to hand out photocopied pictures of factories.
“Siggi’s not a monster, he’s a paragon,” said Klara with an emphasis borrowed from Grandma-Posh who was apt to divide people into paragons and parasites.
“What’s a paragon?” asked Fjóla suspiciously.
“Just a paragon.”
“An ass like Pétur?”
“Pétur’s not an ass. He’s just an old teacher with stinky breath.”
“He is an ass too.”
Klara gave her a firm look. “Pétur worships you. Why do you have to be so nasty to him?”
“He’s an ass.”
“You think everyone’s an ass,” said Klara, breaking off sharply when Pétur slapped a photocopy on the desk and informed her that she had come to school to learn, not to distract Fjóla.
Pétur sucked in his nostrils and continued his progress around the class. Fjóla sniggered: “See, I said he was an ass.”
“No one can be an ass because an ass is an animal with a tail and mane, in case you didn’t know.” It was all Klara could do to whisper.
Fjóla propped her chin on her hand, drew a wart on a German woman worker and sighed that she couldn’t help it if everyone was an ass. “Siggi’s disgusting and an ass. Mum says so.”
“Your mum’s always calling people asses.”
“Dad says so too.”
“He’s always saying that too,” said Klara unimpressed. “It’s stupid to call everyone asses.”
Fjóla added hairs to the wart, measuring the perspective like a Baroque painter. “Not everyone. In Reykjavík there are people who aren’t asses, normal people like in the adverts. I want to go and live there.” She hit on the right spot for the third wart-hair.
“You can do that for all I care – but Siggi’s not an ass and neither am I.”
“I never said you were an ass.”
“You said everyone. That means…”
“KLARA!!!” Pétur materialised, gripped her shoulder and marched her out to the cloakroom.
Sheltered by her mother, Klara had never had the chance to develop prejudices against people, except maybe against Berta. She drank in with her mother’s milk that person is a synonym for diverse beings, as varied as the possibilities of the colour spectrum. She was aware that even the best people can behave incomprehensibly; there was no such thing as a normal person.
Klara sympathised with people for being alive and tended to look for explanations rather than passing judgement – to such an extent that eventually, shocked by her own tolerance, she began to mutiny against it, not least because her mother was notorious for the same quality. So in a spirit of resistance she began to dig deep inside herself in search of prejudices until she uncovered a glittering block of granite: a pitch-black prejudice against the prejudices of others.
She was filled with prejudice against people with violent opinions, strong convictions.
“I’m afraid of people who refuse to recognise those who hold a different view of life from themselves. You can find people like that in every country, every organisation, profession, family and community,” Klara scribbled in her diary made of recycled paper, aged nineteen in a café with a sleepy boyfriend. Then she sipped her cold coffee and added that this sort of obsession probably originated in a lack of respect for others, although people like that regarded themselves as the standard-bearers of understanding.
Gnawing her pencil, solemn-faced, she doodled a picture of Berta with a cactus in her mouth, then crossed it out and carried on writing: “I can see no difference between the fanaticism of the Nazis and that of someone in a religious cult who regards no one but his fellow cult members as equals; or a terrorist with a cause or a preacher on the Christian TV channel; or an academic who despises people who don’t have a master’s degree or a teenager who doesn’t give a shit about books; or a racist or politically correct people who lay down the law about how you can talk about the world. There’s nothing as unspeakable as blind conviction. It is those very people of conviction who are to blame for the fact the world is a bonfire of conflict – to let my prejudices really go over the top.”
The nineteen-year-old Klara began to gnaw her pencil again, looking forward to being an adult who people would listen to. She had discovered that the only way to achieve peace of mind was to doodle pictures of everything she saw and scribble down ideas about how things really were. This provided an outlet for both the over-sensitivity churning inside her and her boundless sense of inadequacy towards the world.
* * * *
(next: Pp 140)
The saltfish is strong; she sips her wine and spears another chunk. She swallows hurriedly when Svenni glugs down his brandy and switches on the CD-player again. She glares at him but weariness prevents her from arguing, she makes do with sighing as Elín stretches out on the living-room floor. Elín dances uninhibitedly, giggling. Then turns up the volume uncomfortably high and laughs like a naughty child – like a girl at a disco in the school music room: a poster of Beethoven, items of lost property on the radiator, sweet wrappers on the dance floor, lights swathed in crepe paper, a girl who laughs at the teacher’s gaze because he’s uncool and she can pierce his woollen waistcoat with her X-ray eyes.
There’s a vibration in the floor, bet Bardi’s screwing, is it the Sudurland eruption? Everything shakes, cracks and splits, is lost. No point worrying about the music seeping down to the basement, the tax return, Embla…
Everything is renewed. Reality, which has been waiting, simmering under the earth’s crust, erupts and pours forth. She hadn’t dreamt of it, it’s far too real. Everything that was is obliterated, everything that waits crawls nearer and nearer. Must feel her way to the end of the road where it has always been waiting.
It was wet and windy the day Pétur Thormódsson made the mistake of his career. If it hadn’t been for the rain drumming on the icy ground he would have gone on to retire a few years later. If it hadn’t been for the dark clouds racing across the sky he would not have taken the silver hipflask to school.
When Pétur had released the horde for the long break he lingered in the empty classroom, taking slugs of watered-down brennivín. Haggard as an ascetic he stared out at the world in XXX-Large, adjusting the seams of his pressed trousers and flicking fluff from his woollen waistcoat. He roved idly around the room, fingering paper darts, rummaging in pencil cases, examining exercise books with the attentiveness of a collector in an antiquarian bookshop.
In one tattered exercise book he read: Pétur eats children. Closing it he walked over to the window where he watched the children giggling in their Millets anoraks. They weren’t children any longer but teenagers, appalling individuals. He was afraid of individuals.
The children spotted his pale face despite the water cascading down the glass. A cheeky boy pointed at him and shouted: “Pétur eats children. Pétur kills. Pétur’s gonna kill and eat YOU!!!” The girls screamed and scattered. One slipped on the icy ground and had difficulty getting up. Pétur was unmoved by the accident. The girl wasn’t in his class. And even if she had been… The bell rang jarringly.
He took a drink of water from the low sink and slipped the flask into the drawer of his desk. Then he opened the door and sat down at the teacher’s table. Sixty years old, surrounded by milling teenagers. Drenched idiot kids, talking each other down as the water ran from their clothes, their trousers, jumpers and socks.
Pétur told them to change into their games kits and they charged noisily into the toilets where they changed their clothes, shrieking. They fidgeted in games shirts and shorts under the low desks. Slurped chocolate milk and munched sandwiches, apples, biscuits and bananas.
After the lunch break Pétur read out a dictation designed to improve the pupils’ punctuation. He read the exercise uncomfortably fast:
Icelandic, Danish and English are taught in Icelandic schools. I own the world, said the emperor. I can see all the girls, they are riding bareback. As you are not listening, Fjóla, I will have to give you a warning. Fjóla looks good on horseback, said the farmer. Fjóla has beautiful thighs, I can tell you.
Gawky thighs contracted in wide shiny shorts, red kneecaps rubbed together. Fjóla looked up frozen from her exercise book. She gaped at Pétur in embarrassment but he pretended nothing had happened and read on:
The farmer saw the horses, they were frisky. Fjóla is a frisky girl with red lips and firm breasts, says…
The children in the class did not see Pétur Thormódsson again. A day later a new teacher appeared, a young, laughter-prone trainee from the Teaching College. Their parents had revolted and kept their children home until the principal sacked Pétur. Klara heard her mum saying that Fjóla’s mother had rung the mothers of the other children in the class.
Didn’t she understand that her daughter looked like a porn star? she wondered long afterwards. She was sitting at the party table in her living room at the time, watching Svenni wiggling his hips to music he couldn´t stand.