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Otto and Harry
Sample PassageHarry was my example. Harry was the blindest of the blind, a super blind. Harry could do anything, and anything he couldn’t do, he’d do at some point.
I could do less than Harry, but I learned from him. He had a head start, because he’d gone blind when he was two, which made a difference, he said. You had learned more. A tumour had blinded him in both eyes. I had no idea what a tumour was, but Harry could tell very interesting stories about it and reduce even the worst people to reverent silence.
Harry had glass eyes, which brought him fame amongst the sighted children. He once came on holiday with us, which proved quite a challenge for my parents. At eight in the morning we’d have children yelling under our bedroom window, demanding that Harry take out his eyes. My Mum got so angry she almost gave him a black eye. Not that she could have, because he had just taken them out, his eyes.
We were boarders which means we lived at the Institute. The Institute was in the town of Bussum, or Huizen, no one really knew. But it didn’t matter. If it had been in Laren, it wouldn’t have been any better. There were day pupils too, they went home every day. They were the locals, the mother’s blind, they didn’t belong with us.
We lived in house number 1. Someone had thought it a good idea to name the Institute’s lodgings after birds. So house number 1 was called the Blue Tit. Everyone called it the Blind Tit, of course. House number 2 was the Blackbird, number 3 the Finch, and number 4 the Wagtail.
I’d have preferred to stay at one of the other houses, because house number 1 was total madness. Harry and I – my name is Otto, Otto Iking – were the only two normal blind ones there. The rest were smelly, strange, immature, dumb and funny in the head. If you considered all of the gang, you would think blindness affected the brain. I can remember all their names, voices, stupid drivel and their stink, right down to the smallest detail.
First of all there was Walter, of course. He stank of foul soap. Walter’s father was a minister, which made his son rather arrogant. He looked down on us a little, although he couldn’t see a blind thing more than we could. He made up his own mini sermons, which he delivered to the Blue Tit standing on the cover of the sandpit. His little stories were full of hell and damnation, but they were funny too, particularly because of Walter’s high, squeaky voice and rolling Rs. I had never been to church, but I imagined everyone rolling around the floor there, laughing.
Walter always carried a short stick so he wouldn’t bump into things. That was ridiculous. No one at the Institute walked around with a stick. Everyone just went wherever, except that stuck-up minister’s son. We often took his stick off him, which threw him into a panic, and then he’d bump into everything. That made us roar with laughter. We did it at least four times a week. We couldn’t get enough of it. Walter always shouted that that kind of behaviour meant we’d never get to heaven, but that didn’t bother us. At Sunday school they’d told us there were no sticks in heaven. It must be boring there, we thought. The place to be was hell, where there were plenty of sticks.
Pieter was a small, whiney boy from Rotterdam. He smelled a little of piss. He used to complain about everyone and everything, saying it was all shite. He was right about that, actually, but there was no point pointing it out all the time. Pieter drove everyone mad, including me. I wasn’t the aggressive type, but as soon as Pieter said something, in his high, whiney Rotterdam voice, I felt the muscles in my arms tense and my fists clench. He wore these headgear braces. Once, when he started singing that bloody annoying Feyenoord anthem after a particularly humiliating defeat for Ajax, I knocked those braces right out of his mouth. He had to wear them for another three years as a result.
Michiel was the son of a naval officer. He always wanted to ‘kick someone’s ass’ – that’s what they did in the navy, apparently. He never managed to kick someone though, because he stank of Swiss grated cheese, so you could smell him a mile off. All you needed to do was stick out your leg, and he’d fall. ‘In the Navy. Yes, you can sail te seven seas’, we’d sing. Michiel was very tall and thin. By the time he was twelve, he was bumping his head against the doorposts.
Marc had white hair, we’d been told, so we called him Spitz. Not that we had any idea what a spitz was, but it worked really well – it must be an aggressive breed, we thought. When Marc got angry, we called him ‘Tomato with Mayonnaise’. That was Pieter’s idea, because Pieter’s father was a market gardener and he knew a lot about tomatoes. Marc was musical. He and I used to play beautiful tunes on the recorder.
Tony was deaf and fat and black-skinned, but we didn’t know any offensive words for that. Besides, he wouldn’t have heard them anyway. Tony got lost everywhere. That boy had such a bad sense of direction that he could lose his way in the toilet. When he didn’t know where he was, he’d howl until someone put him back on track. That’s how he ended up being called the Foghorn.
Hajo was the tallest, slowest idiot on earth. He was called the Snail. Which was lucky for him because, compared to Hajo, a snail was fast as a fox. Hajo needed fifteen minutes to walk from school to the Blue Tit, even though it wasn’t more than fifty yards. He skipped the milk break.
Eric had epilepsy and was the Fluke, Marga copied everyone and was the Parrot, but her breath was much worse than any bird’s could ever be.
As far as Harry and I were concerned, they were all great targets for bullying.
There was only one boy we couldn’t beat – Edwin.
Edwin could see a little. No one knew why. Edwin used to kick the completely blind kids in the shins and run away. The staff of the Blue Tit were fine with that because Edwin’s head had got stuck during birth. Edwin could do the most awful things and get away with it. He was really underhand, a hypocrite. Everyone really hated him.
Harry and I had set up a bullying competition. We made a list of whom we’d bullied and how often. Tripping up Michiel was five points, beating up Pieter was ten, and so on. We had a table for all the points we could collect. You could lose points too: if you tried to trip up Michiel and failed, five points were taken off your total.
Once I lost nearly all my bullying points when I tried to ring Mr Van Halen’s doorbell and run away. He worked in the kitchen and lived at the top of the main building, where the Vocational Training School was. I didn’t realise that Mr Elmer, the headmaster, was right behind me. Elmer usually smoked a pipe, but not that time, which wasn’t very sportsmanlike of him. No sooner had I taken my finger off the bell than he grabbed me by the collar.
‘Is that funny?’ he bellowed.
‘No Sir, Mr Elmer, it’s not funny,’ I squealed. What a spineless wimp I was! It cost me 246 bully points. Now I’d have to trip up Michiel ten times, take Walter’s stick off him 38 times, yell ‘Spitz’ at Marc 46 times, and much, much more in order to bump up my total. And so I did.
Harry could cycle. I could too, but I still crashed into fat Tony regularly. Harry didn’t, at least not on purpose. He never fell, never rode into the rhododendrons. I did. Harry had a flat tyre once. Mr Reinier, head of the Blue Tit staff, taught him how to fix it. Just in case he had another flat tyre, which he didn’t. I never had a flat tyre either, which was just as well because I didn’t know how to fix it and I didn’t like Mr Reinier, because if you spelled his name backwards, it was the same.
The Institution will be published on 27 April 2017. For more information and review copies please contact the publisher: email@example.com - +44 (0) 7792611929