It’s a brutal start to the chapter, as Tania and Charlotte are back from Solitary sporting fresh bruises. This is business as usual for the kids, though, who would rather gossip about the fact that Peter hasn’t shown up for class. But if you thought the child-beating was over, then sadly you’re in for an unpleasant surprise.
It’s Decorum class, and the theme for today is Invisibility – no, not a Harry Potter spell, but the ability of servants to remain quiet and unnoticed until they are needed. To that end, teacher Mrs Dawson, whom Anna likes and wants to impress, has each student attempt to walk silently across the room.
“He was quiet, often distracted, and wasn’t good at anything as far as Anna could tell.”
Anna doesn’t think much of classmate Harry, which doesn’t make her very likeable, although I guess that she’s had empathy long since beaten out of her. Anyway, Harry is of course too clumsy to make it across the room silently, and when he falls over, Mrs Dawson punishes him.
“…then picked up the cane she always carried with her, smashing it down on Harry’s fingers.”
Yes, Mrs Dawson breaks Harry’s hand, and when he still can’t walk across the room silently, he is told he must practise all night and miss all his meals until he can do it perfectly. With broken fingers. And this is a woman that Anna likes. That is how fucked up in the head these kids have become – not only are they starved and beaten, but they still can’t help but cleave to their authority figures.
Still, Anna’s not entirely sanguine about what happened, although I can’t really tell if it’s because she feels sorry for Harry, or is just anxious about Peter’s absence. She throws herself into her evening task of chopping up meat for dinner with the crappy blunt knives that are the best Grange Hall has to offer its Surpluses.
“She felt someone coming up behind her, and turned suddenly, to see the face of Surplus Charlie just a foot away from hers.”
Remember Charlie, the bully that randomly showed up to pester Anna and Peter a few chapters ago? Well, he’s back to be his usual articulate self, but first, the narrative decides to break for an interlude which would have been better placed earlier in the chapter. Charlie’s face is swollen, which, unlike the beating meted out to Tania and Charlotte, or to Harry, is reason to digress about how Surpluses try not to notice each other’s injuries. Doctors are rarely called, and none of the adults are too shaken up if a Surplus dies. So again, horrible stuff, but why didn’t the narration pick up on this earlier?
Charlie is basically here to needle Anna about Peter’s absence; having insulted Anna and provoked Peter into a fight, Charlie now wants to know where he is so he can finish beating Peter within an inch of his life.
“Instead, all she could think about was Peter…Peter was her friend, however much she tried to deny it.”
I can understand being worried about Peter – it’s only natural to be concerned after hearing that someone had their head ‘kicked in’ and has subsequently vanished. But come on, Anna, you’re hardly friends. You spent the entire first quarter of the book ignoring him and brushing him off. And what about the kids you grew up with, the ones who get kicked and beaten every day? What about Harry? Do you care nothing for them in comparison?
I don’t blame Anna for not having the same reactions as a middle-class 21st century person, because she lives in a world where preserving yourself from the next beating is the top priority, but at least let’s be consistent here. The only reason she cares about Peter as opposed to anyone else is because The Plot tells her to.
But that’s enough, because Anna decides to break all the rules and sneak out of bed to find Peter. She heads down to Solitary to find Evil Mrs Pincent and two men hauling Peter into a cell; as soon as they depart, she sneaks over to talk to him.
And since that was a longer chapter than I’ve become accustomed to. I’ll stop there. Cliffhanger!