As I have mentioned before, I grew up in a tough neighbourhood and went to a rough school. There really wasn’t any place for a sensitive kid there; you either toughened up or you became a library monitor and spent your breaks at school in the library, and made sure your parents picked you up after classes. These are two incidents which stand out of a childhood filled with them.
The boy ran, he ran across the school soccer field, out-of-bounds to pupils. Nevertheless, he ran across it. There were worse things than writing lines, or being reprimanded by old Mr. Nelson, far worse things. He had decided he would take his chances.
“Oh, please God. Please, please, please,” he panted the prayer.
In the distance he could hear the joyful cries of children, freed from the shackles of school for the day. Pets barking welcomes, mothers singing greetings, bicycles swishing off; his satchel beating against his hip as he ran. The boy was not aware of any of this. It was as though he were in a long, dark tunnel, pounding toward the light at its end. Aware only of his tortured breathing, his prayer, the heaviness in his legs, and his goal. The rest was indistinct and muted, shadows glimpsed out of the corner of his eyes. The boy reached the green, three-strand wire fence that marked the school’s boundaries. It was as he was climbing gingerly over the fence that he heard his tormentor’s voice. He froze, a rabbit caught in the headlights of a car. A whimper escaped his dry, spit-flecked lips. He swayed on top of the fence for a moment, and then he was violently wrenched over. Over and down, onto the baking tarmac of the road. His breath exploded from him as he crashed onto his left shoulder.
There was a frozen moment of numbness, as though he were viewing himself from above. A boy lying in the road, twisted, his satchel on top of his head, two boys standing over him. Then, a gasp of breath, and he was back in his body. The pain followed in a wave, a shocking bludgeon of icy water and then almost instantly becoming white hot.
“Hey, Andrew, Baby Girl. Swanepoel, you bedwetting mommy’s boy! Ha, what kind name is that?” the boy heard one of his tormentors mock as he began to cry softly. “Seeing as you always smell of piss I’m sure you won’t mind if we use you as a pisstrough.”
There was the rasping of zips being yanked down, a pause as they fumbled, and then hot urine poured down onto him. He gagged as the stench overwhelmed him and his eyes began to burn. He hugged the ground, trying to sink down into it. He was not aware of when they left or of the time passing, only of his overwhelming misery and loneliness.
Greg Clewlow. Every institution has one: the popular kid, the sports star, the leader of the “in-crowd”, and usually the school bully. If there was a game to be played he was the one everybody wanted on their side, a party, he had to be there. Teachers and parents loved him, girls adored him, and boys wanted to be like him. By standard four (grade six) he was a man. It was a shock to most of us when, while getting changed for the first PE (physical education) lesson of the year, we saw that suddenly Greg had grown hair all over his chest and privates. Overnight, it seemed. Nobody dared say anything for fear of getting the snot beaten out of them. As it was, Gregory called me Kojak, referring to my hairless nethers, and proceeded to rub his sweaty gonads on my head, just in case any of his classmates had not taken note of his new manliness. After that everybody wanted hair on their body.
Greg was the kid who, in standard five, brought Deep Throat to school. At tea and lunch breaks he would read it to a captive, though somewhat bewildered and mystified, audience. I, having been raised by a single mother, received my sex education on school playgrounds, sportsfields and in change rooms, thought the book was in some sort of code. Words such as fellatio, penis and nether-lips went right over my head (excuse the pun), as I concentrated on trying to get my Sprite yo-yo to walk the dog.
Needless to say, as usually happens in playground skullduggery, someone let the cat out of the bag. The teachers and parents descended upon us like vengeful prophets on the straying Israelites, ready to smite some serious butt. There was an investigation carried out, much in the same manner as the Salem Witch Trials. The whole standard five group was then called into the hall, where the book, looking dilapidated and the worse for wear after having been thoroughly scrutinized by the teachers, was held up in front of us. Thus ended the days of rumour and speculation, and so began the acts of contrition and exorcism.
After a sermon we were each handed a copy of a questionnaire to fill in. This was before the days of photostat and copy machines. These were roneos; copies made off a template machine. Roneos always had a chemical smell to them. As one, like little drug addicts, the first thing children did when handed a roneo was to lift it to their faces to inhale the pungent and tart smell. It was a ritual that I am sure took place in classrooms all over the country. I loved that smell until our day of shame. After that whenever I smelt the roneo smell I would be filled with a sense of unease.
It must be remembered that this was 1976 and South Africa was in the grip of Apartheid (Aparthate). A couple of months earlier, 10000 Black youths had demonstrated on the streets of Soweto. They were protesting the government order that they be taught in Afrikaans, the language of the oppressor. The Nationalist government had crushed this show of defiance, brutally, as was the way they dealt with everything. Vorster, the Prime Minister then, had demanded that order be restored at all costs, and so it was done. 176 were killed, 1139 wounded and 1300 arrested. However, this had sparked the fires of change. Martyrs and heroes had been created. There was an air of unease amongst those in power. The Swart Gevaar (the Black Danger) in the form of porn had now infiltrated this White prep school. This White school where the little boys wore ties and lifted their caps to greet adults, and the girls wore sunflower-yellow dresses with ribbons in their hair. Of course, it was an English (the so-called language of the Anti-Christ, Communists and radicals) school and therefore more prone to this lack of moral fibre and the Old Testament values installed in Afrikaans children. But it was a White school, and therefore had to be saved.
The South African Censor Board banned porn, as well as art, literature and film. This was a group of White Afrikaans church ministers and tea-club ladies, who were given the power to decide what the people of South Africa were allowed to see, hear and read, in the belief, that in this manner their thinking could be controlled. Unfortunately, in the case of the majority of South Africans, including those of Colour, it worked. It should be noted that the same censor board, which banned Deep Throat, also banned a technical film about speech defects called Tongue Thrust. It would only be in 1994 that the yoke of oppression and discrimination would officially end with the inauguration of Madiba, Nelson Mandela.
PARKSIDE PRIMARY SCHOOL
STANDARD 5 OCTOBER 1976
COMPLETE THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONAIRE AS HONESTLY AS POSSIBLE. YOU ARE NOT REQUIRED TO PUT YOUR NAME ON IT, AND THEREFORE YOUR ANSWERS WILL BE COMPLETELY CONFIDENTIAL. REMEMBER THAT THIS IS NOT A TEST.
1) HAVE YOU READ THE BOOK IN QUESTION? ————————————-
2) HAVE YOU SEEN OR HEARD OF OTHERS READING THE BOOK? ———–
3) IF YOU HAVE ANSWERED YES, NAME THE PUPILS. —————————–
4) DO YOU KNOW WHO BROUGHT THE BOOK TO SCHOOL? ——————–
5) IF YOU HAVE ANSWERED YES, NAME THE PUPIL. ——————————-
6) HAVE YOU EVER SEEN OR READ OTHER BOOKS, MAGAZINES OR MOVIES OF THIS NATURE I.E. SEXUAL OR PORNOGRAPHIC? —————–
7) IF YOU HAVE ANSWERED YES, PLEASE EXPLAIN WHERE AND WHEN THIS OCCURRED, AND FROM WHOM YOU GOT THE MATERIAL. ——————————————————————————————————————-
8)DO YOU THINK THAT IT IS A GOOD THING THAT CHILDREN SEE THIS TYPE OF ADULT SUBJECT MATTER? —————————————————————————————————
9) PLEASE EXPLAIN YOUR ANSWER TO THE PREVIOUS QUESTION. WHY DO YOU THINK SO? ——————————————————————————————————————————————————————————-
10) IF YOU WERE TO ENCOUNTER THIS TYPE OF SITUATION AGAIN, ARE YOU AWARE OF WHAT YOU ARE REQUIRED TO DO I.E. INFORM AN ADULT SUCH AS A PARENT OR TEACHER? ————————————————————————————————————-
I was eleven or twelve when Enchantment came to visit our town. It slipped in on cat’s paws one rainy weekend at the end of September. I was proud to say, to anyone who would listen, that I was the first kid in my neighbourhood to discover it. It was the first day of the Michelmas holidays. A Monday. Ask any kid: weekends don’t count as holidays. Anyway, it was a gray, wet and blustery day. My favourite. A perfect day to invite old friends over. Perhaps Chet and the Hardy boys? Or William, or Jennings? Or maybe the Secret Seven? Or what about Tarzan? I had my pass to their world, my library card, clutched in a sweaty hand to protect it from the rain. I didn’t mind the rain though, because the municipal library wasn’t far from my home.
We lived in a cul-de-sac called Dawson Road, and we were the very last, the tenth, house in the street. Alongside our house ran The Path. The Path was a track about twenty-five meters in length, and was flanked on either side by tall pine trees. It was a shortcut to the Main Road. It was always carpeted with pine needles and cones, and carried with it a scent of the wilderness. At night when I lay snug in my bed I could hear those trees shifting about like great, restless beasts, trapped in the middle of suburbia.
Once on the Main Road, it was a five-minute walk to the Malvern Shopping Center, behind which was the library. I enjoyed walking through the Center because it meant walking past Beares. Beares Really Cares; it was a window to better life. They sold furniture and household appliances, but most importantly, they sold racing bicycles and choppers. Beautiful, shiny sleek machines, smelling of new oil and tyres. There was a particular 12-speed that I had my eyes on. It was mercury-silver and sliver-lean. “We’ll see”, was my Mom’s response, but I lived in hope. I saw the flickering in the display window from a distance, and like a kitten chasing flecks of light, I was drawn. There it was! A television set! Exactly like I’d seen in the movies and in my comics! They had the Flintstones on, that crazy stone-age family. I was captivated. Time and the world passed by me unnoticed. It was only when the screen went dark that I escaped from my enthralled state. A horde of children and a couple of adults surrounded me. I had been totally unaware of them, so strong had been the spell. All seemed to be shaking themselves free of a pleasant daydream. I decided to take the opportunity this break in the magic gave to call the neighbourhood gang, and took off at a sprint. Over the next couple of months, children, under the spell of the Television, would gather outside the Beares’ window in their droves. After school they would be there in a kaleidoscope of school uniforms, and on Saturdays while their parents shopped. Parents learned early on the value of the Television as a child-minder, and many a set was purchased for this very reason alone. Only on Sundays was the arcade silent. It had the feel of an empty playground. The charge of all that youthful energy remained, and if you listened carefully you could hear joyful laughter under the wind.
Morrison, Bowker, English and North. The clans had gathered to compete for superiority on the fields of battle. Yellow, blue, green and red. The colours of the ancient houses marked both Olympian and spectator. Banners fluttered in the gusting wind, their sound and that of the House Captains and their lieutenants masked by the buzzsaw quality of Vice-headmaster Peter’s voice over the P.A. system. I had run in the 800m under fourteen age group race, and had only been beaten by Steven Mc Manus; some said the best long distance runner in the school. So I was feeling good about myself as I sat chatting to Andre, my best bud. In fact I was…
“…stoked! I think if I train next year, instead of relying on my rugby fitness to get me through, I might stand a chance of beating Mc Manus.”
“Yeah, right, ou!” Andre said derisively. I punched him playfully; doing the Bruce Lee cat-howl from our favourite movie, Enter the Dragon.
“Don’t mess with Mister Lee! You mess with the Dragon you get the stuff kicked out of you, Ou!”
“Mister Lee, my butt! Mister Ug Lee, more likely, China!”
“Prepare to die, gajin! You white devil, you!”
“Are you two homos playing nicely? Swanepoel, if you want your boyfriend to stick his dick up your arse, take him to the toilets. There’s soap there for lubrication,” a voice sneered from the stands above us.
I glanced up at the top of the stands where all the so-called heavies sat. The back-of-the-bus-rebel syndrome. As if instinctively done, like all villains, they had the sun at their backs. The dark shapes were indiscernible as I squinted into the bright light.
“Face the front, Swaneee-eeepooos,” jeered another voice. I recognized this one though. It was Gregory. I flushed and turned around, blinking away the sunspots. Gregory and his Eight P friends. Eight P stood for Standard Eight Practical. The school standards or grades ran in streams, that is, from the academic achievers in the A-stream down to the lowest in the C-stream. And then you had the Practical classes. These were the boys with no academic aptitude or interest at all. They would leave school after their Standard Eight year and enter into apprenticeships as artisans or mechanics. Generally they were big, raw-boned boys with street smarts and chips on their shoulders. They had the air of alley cats about them; always slightly disheveled, always with a fresh scar on their person and they walked a straycat-strut. They also formed a large part of the gang population in the school.
My stomach fluttered as tension filled my frame. I knew what was coming next. I had been in this situation too often not to. For some reason something we had done or said had riled them, and now they were onto us like a rabid pitbull onto a kitten. Andre sensed it as well, because he had gone pale and was wringing his hands as he stared vacantly at the athletics in progress. It happened a lot quicker than I thought it would. Somebody sniffed obscenely loudly, cleared their throat and then spat. A huge globule of spit and snot landed on the back of Andre’s blazer. I blanched, fighting back my instinctive urge to retch. It began to slide down, jelly-like, as the murder of crows on the top of the stand cawed their approval, laughing raucously. Andre looked at me, questioningly, knowing the answer already.
“They greenied on your blazer,” I said, and turned away as he frantically pulled his blazer off to renewed laughter. A wave of righteous anger and indignation washed through me and I stood up, turning slowly to face Gregory and his cronies. There were no doubts in my mind that Gregory had instigated this, so my glare was focused at the silhouette I knew to be his. I didn’t see one of the other boys hurl a tinfoil ball made from his lunch wrapping. It caroomed off my head, stinging, but not as much as the groups’ hilarity did. In a rage, I ascended the stands, squinting murderously at them, my teeth clenched. As I neared, the sun no longer masked them and I could begin to make out their faces. Greg, of course, flanked by Enstroom, Escreet and Potgieter. I knew their surnames only because as a junior at high school it is advisable to know the predators in order to avoid them. I could hear Greg’s sibilant whispering. He was saying something to Escreet, who, egged on by the other two as well, stepped down to confront me. Though committed to an action, my legs seem to grow heavier and heavier as I climbed the stands. Then a strange thing happened. I saw uncertainty flicker across the aptly named Escreet’s face. A bat across the face of a pale moon. I began to breathe once again and my legs became a little steadier. We met in a clash of glares and testosterone. As I tried to step up so that I was on the same level as Escreet, he thrust a hand at me. I instinctively slapped it away, swirling past.
“Hey ou, smaak to get fucked up?” he threatened, the smell of peanut butter on his breath. I looked at him, keeping a wary eye on the other three as well.
“Just stop spitting, okay?”
“Then who was it?” I asked. Knowing that I was not going to get an answer, I continued after a brief pause. “Look, I don’t care who it was, just make sure it stops!”
Escreet looked at me uncertainly, and for a moment I thought that my bravado had worked. Then he looked up at the other three and I knew the moment he turned back what was going to happen.
“Hey, fuck you! What are you going to do about it?”
“Oh, so it was you?”
“So what if it was me? What are you going to do about it?” and with that he shoved me back. I had been expecting something so I twisted, moving to the side rather than back down the stands. The tension boiled over within me and I leapt at him, shoving him with both hands. He fell back and up. Greg and the other two stooges jumped up and surged down toward me. I braced myself.
“What’s going on up there? You guys sit down and watch the athletics. Clewlow, you’re not in North. Get to your own House. Now!”
It was Neil Faulkner, one of the prefects, a pretty decent sort. I could have hugged him.
“Swanepoel, this isn’t over!” Greg spat out as he pounded down the stands past me, then he looked at Escreet. “Fuck him up after school!”
Escreet glared at me, his left eye twitching. Each twitch punctuated by a word. “Pull!” Twitch. “In!” Twitch. “After!” Twitch. “School!” Twitch! Twitch! “Pull in after school, lighty! The park in Bowker Road. I’m going to fuck you up!”
“Fine,” I said, and turned away, looking at my feet as I descended, knowing every eye on those stands was on me. With a huge expulsion of tension-filled air I sat down next to Andre. He looked at me with a mixture of awe and gratitude on his face.
“What?” I said, feeling uncomfortable.
“What are you going to do? I can’t believe it! Do you know who they are? Of course you do. I can’t believe it! Are you going to rumble with him? Why don’t you go to the prefects? I can’t pull in with you after school. My mom’s picking me up. Do you want a lift?” Andre rattled on, breathlessly.
“How’s your blazer?” I asked, trying to change the subject.
“I got most of it off with toilet paper. I almost puked though! It was totally gross! I’ll just have to clean the rest of it off with a wet cloth when I get home. My mother’s going to freak.” Then he looked at me with that look again and said softly, “Thanks, Andy. Really! Thank you.”
Embarrassed, I looked away to watch the athletics while contemplating my up-coming date with destiny, in the form of Douglas Escreet, juvenile delinquent. A fight! A rumble! A real one! One that I would actively be involved in, and not just as a punching bag. Well, one hoped so anyway. My first ever with someone who wasn’t related to me. A real fight! I had to remind myself to breathe. The day seemed to last an eternity and speed by at the same time, a paradox created by my tension and feeling of experiencing an out-of-body episode. But end it eventually did. We assembled, the trophies were handed out and we were dismissed with a warning that we were not allowed to leave the school in our athletics kit unless being taken home by a parent. By now, the air had become so thin that I felt like I was breathing like a landed fish, and yet it weighed down so heavily that I was struggling to walk. Boys, parents and teachers washed around me as I made my way out of the school and down the steep dip that gave the road Dipdale its name. I turned left and, even though every instinct in my body was screaming at me to go home, headed toward the vacant lot we called “the park”. In the five minutes –going-on-five-hours it took me to walk there, a large crowd of boys had gathered, at least twenty, and with more arriving. The scent of blood had been released into the waters of that adolescent, testosterone-charged world of a boys’ school, and, like the shark-like creatures they were, they were now in a feeding frenzy, answering to a primitive call they could not possibly ignore. They wanted blood.
The spectators, in little groups of two and three, had formed a rough circle. At the top end of the circle, the furthermost point from the road, were Escreet and his buds. Conversations halted and all eyes turned to me. A dog could be heard barking in the distance and, somewhere nearby, a woman, probably his mother, was yelling at a boy named Georgie. The adrenaline I was mainlining at the moment had heightened my senses to such an extent that I felt like I was on a sensory autobahn, travelling at 200 kilometers an hour. Sensory information rushed up to me, was inputted briefly and then I was past it, onto the next download. I could feel the fibres of the shirt on my back, hear the grass brushing against my shoes, see the flecks of dandruff on the back of Escreet’s blazer collar, smell the hot tar behind me and taste the cooling afternoon air in my mouth. A snapshot, and then, like a slide in a projector, that set of data was swiftly replaced by another.
“Feets don’t let me down now,” I thought, as I willed myself across the expanse of grass to where Escreet stood. I very nearly broke into a maniacal grin at that, but I was sure my rigid face would crack and shatter so I restrained the impulse. Escreet turned to face me, stepping away from Greg and the other boys, and the strangest thing then happened. The sensory-overload I had been experiencing abruptly stopped, and I became aware of only my shallow breathing, the pounding of my heart and the throb of my pulse. I came to a halt in front of Escreet, who glared at me, shouted something and then swung an awkward left at my head while bring his right hand out of his pocket. Although the punch took an eternity to reach me I found myself unable to move to avoid it. It caught me high up on my right ear and the sting brought with it a return to reality and the rush of my senses to normality. I swung my rucksack at him as I took a chopping blow to my shoulder from his right. Then we were grappling. I took another blow to the head as I bored it into his face. Then I threw my first punch, which caught him in the belly, and to my surprise he went down. He looked up at me, gasping for breath, blood trickling from his nose where my head had caught him. I stood there, looking down at him, not quite knowing what to do. It was only when I heard Neil Faulner’s voice that I noticed the track marker with the eight-inch nail in it in Escreet’s right hand. I think that Escreet only then realised the enormity of what he had done when he saw the direction of my eyes. He dropped the weapon as though it had burnt him and he looked down in shame.
“Break it up! Go home! All of you! Mr. Escreet and Mr. Swanepoel! You will report to Principal Sheratt’s office at First Bell tomorrow morning,” the prefect bellowed and boys scattered. Then with some concern, “Swanepoel, there is blood on your shirt.”
I hastily slipped my blazer on, though for the life of me I could not remember taking it off, and grabbed my rucksack. “It must be from Escreet’s nose, Mr. Faulkner,” I said, making off as quickly as I could to avoid any questions that were sure to arise. I headed up the hill, and only once I had passed Timson’s Tuckshop and the school bus stop, did I slow down, the enormity of what had just taken place weighing me down. It was only then that I began to feel the deep ache in my right shoulder and the throbbing of my head. It was also then that I became aware of the sticky wetness of my shirt and hair. I lifted the right lapel of blazer cautiously, and a low moan reached my dry lips unbidden as I saw the dark red horror that my shirt had become. I put my hand to my head and it came away sticky and coloured. A wave of nausea and dizziness passed through me, my legs weakened and I stumbled. Then I braced myself, took a deep breath, swallowed, and focused on getting to the safety of my home and the sanctuary of my room.
My mother freaked when she got home to be confronted by a bloodied and pale teenage son. One who was trying desperately not to burst into tears. After taking me to the doctor, feeling each stitch and injection as though it were happening to her, she went hunting for Mister Escreet and his parents in an icy rage, telephone directory in hand. I was asleep when she got home but the next day a changed Escreet stood with me outside Principal Sheratt’s office with Faulner. Sheratt was a strange, rather detached, pink effeminate marshmallow-of-a-man, who apparently had made his daughter’s wedding dress. His daughter, Miss Sheratt, had taught at our school two years before and had married Paulo Pinto, the head boy, or so the scandal went. Sheratt advised us that he had discussed the situation with our parents, ordered us to bend, and gave each of us two lashes with his cane and sent us on our way. I got to put my very first two marks on the back of my tie, as was the ritual at the school, to match the two across my buttocks.
Escreet, my mother having put the fear of God into him as well as his parents, became a ghost-like shadow of his former self. At the end of the year he left school, disappearing quietly, to become a mechanic or railway shunter, and neither I nor anybody that I knew, heard of him again. After the fight the bullying stopped. Bullies, as is their nature, like hyenas, will pick on the weak in the herd. I was no longer seen as a soft target and thus mostly left alone. Gregory especially, avoided me. His decline through our school years was matched by my ascent. I became a prefect, got my school colours for rugby and athletics, and achieved a matric exemption, placing in the top ten of our school. Though he did get his matric, Greg descended into a life of drugs, alcohol, gangs and petty crime.
What comes around goes around. I’ve always believed that.