If you search Google Earth for Hidcote, South Africa, you’ll be swept down through an unusually clear stratosphere and pointed, as if with the finger of a whimsical Zeus, to an unremarkable dot next to a railway line that runs through a nondescript stretch of terrain somewhere between nowhere and not very much, but everybody’s got to grow up somewhere.
Follow the line a few hundred yards in a north-westerly direction and you’ll see a train frozen by the shutter of the Google camera in the act of passing under a dusty little bridge. To the west of the bridge there’s a dusty little crossroad. If you walked down the bridge and turned right at the dusty little crossroad you would be on the dusty little track that leads to the old New Dell farmhouse nestling in the beautiful green valley of my childhood. Soon you’d smell wood smoke and the sweet pollen of green wattle, and you’d hear Jessie barking on that echoing veranda to summons my father down from the dairy.
It was on that self-same dusty little bridge that my brother Bruce and I were loitering on the bright afternoon of the 31st of May, 1961. We were on our way home from boarding school in Pietermaritzburg, specifically from the boarding establishment of the Merchiston Preparatory School when it was still located near the town centre, just off the old Commercial Road. In the great tradition of Victorian boarding schools the masters called him “Torr” and called me “Torr Two”, which inadvertently also happened to sum up the nature of our fraternal bond.
I assume we must have been given a lift back from Pietermaritzburg by a neighbouring farmer or farmer’s wife who would also have had sons or a son at Merchiston, and dropped off by arrangement somewhere on the Mooi River road to walk the remainder of the way to New Dell.
It wouldn’t have been unusual, in those days, to expect a boy of ten and a boy of seven to brave a few miles of country roads through the land of the fierce and formidable Zulu without alarm or incident, even two little white boys with two apparently innocent white faces, even on the very day that sparked the flame that lit the blaze that burned and raged between citizen and fellow citizen for decades to come.
All we knew was that we were going home because it was a holiday, and one more welcome than ever for popping up so suddenly and unexpectedly on the implacable calendar of misery.
Yes, we were vaguely aware that something momentous had happened in the adult world. The headmaster had made a solemn speech in the quad. The teachers had shuffled their feet and looked at the ground. Then there were tomato sandwiches and orange squash for all on the playing field, which was suspicious because we never had sandwiches or orange squash. If it was supposed to be a celebration, it didn’t feel like one. It felt like some kind of bribe.
Then we were lined up in a queue from oldest to youngest, and each of us was handed a small flag on a little white stick of plastic, the familiar Oranje, Blanje, Blou with the Union Jack alongside the flags of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic arranged in the central white band.
I don’t know what Bruce had done with his, but I was happily waving mine at a train passing beneath the dusty bridge when I felt it being whisked out of my hand. I turned around to see a tall black man in an elegant black suit who had silently materialised between us. He wasn’t angry, but nor was he smiling. He held the flag out towards me, the tip of the plastic stick pinched between thumb and forefinger as though he were holding the festering corpse of a rat by the tip of its tail, and said in perfect English, “There is only one thing this is good for.”
Then, shockingly to my seven year old eyes, he squatted in the dust on the bridge, removed the stick, folded the flag in four, and proceeded to enact the cross-cultural ritual of the arse wipe.
I realised a few things right then and there: that adults wiped their bums the same way that children did; that an act as intimate and private as this could be performed theatrically in a public space without the actor being struck down by a bolt of lightning; and that there was something about the size, the shape, the material or the colours of the flag, or the way some or all of its attributes combined together, that imbued in a strange and incomprehensible way this otherwise trivial object with the power to arouse in this particular man an extraordinary loathing, repugnance and contempt.
He left the flag in the dust on the bridge and walked calmly away, looking back only when he reached the crossroad to raise his right fist in the air in what I later wanted to think of as a comradely salute.
I don’t know if it meant more to Bruce than it did to me. I don’t remember if we talked about it, either then or later. If anything, he would have found it less frightening than amusing. But that was about the time he began populating sketch books with drawings of people chopping off each other’s arms and legs, and of fountains of blood spurting from the severed aortas of busty women or the jugular veins of decapitated men, and he’d taken to mole hunting and shooting mousebirds and Indian mynahs and eviscerating them with a pen-knife, and cooking their innards on a piece of wire mesh over an open fire and persuading me to join him in discovering what their hearts and livers tasted like, so the incident on the bridge would have seemed small fry by comparison.
Bruce was like Davy Crocket, Hiawatha and the James Coburn of In Like Flint all rolled into one. If he had lived to see a zombie apocalypse he would have been Rick Grimes.
Neither of us said anything about it when we got home. I knew instinctively it fell into that class of topics my mother deemed “unsuitable” for conversation, which included religion, my mother’s in-laws, and where babies came from. So I parked it in that dark place where children keep their nightmares, and tried to forget it.
As a measure of just how shamefully naïve I was about the workings of the wider world, it wasn’t until my tenth year that I discovered that there was a name for the innumerable questions that sprang to mind if one stopped for just a second to examine with any sort of objectivity the social arrangements that prevailed at the time, which I wasn’t inclined to do any more than a fish is inclined to examine with any sort of objectivity the water in which it swims.
It was anomalous but not egregious that the boys called the black men who worked at the school “boys”, and the black men called the boys “masters”, which is what the boys called their teachers. But I had heard some of my fellow boarders saying disparaging and distasteful things about the women in the kitchen who cooked our meals, and about the men who served them to us, and the men and women who cleaned the classrooms and picked up our litter and weeded the playing field; and I had felt them as pricks to my conscience, which produced a dim apprehension that there was a nameless undercurrent of disgrace and infamy fermenting beneath the superficial brightness and innocence of our boyish days.
It was the last day of the first term of the 1963 calendar of misery. That afternoon we would be breaking up for Christmas hols. There was a song we used to sing at Merchiston on the last day of term. I can’t remember the words or the tune, but I know it made mention of the opening of the gates of hell. With the deepest respect for the manifold blessings marriage and fatherhood, I’m not sure that even the most joyous of experience of my adult life has ever quite recaptured the thrilling pitch of abandoned delight I used to feel on days like that.
Much later in life, when the subject of our schooldays came up in conversation and I launched into my usual bitter tirade about fascist dictatorships and not being able to tell the difference between the food and the punishment, I remember my mother smiling wistfully and saying, “I’m sorry you had an unhappy childhood.”
I’m glad I was able to tell her that it wasn’t the schools that had made me so unhappy; it was that I’d been much too happy at home.
We were in Toffee’s history class. He was a kindly old cove universally respected, and accordingly exceptional, for rewarding good behaviour with the eponymous sticky sweets, rather than punishing the absence of good behaviour with the lashings of a cane. Sympathetically attuned to the restless spirit of our collective impatience, manifesting itself in arbitrary acts of pushing and shoving and giggling and the throwing of crushed paper balls, he set aside the expected agenda of yet another revision of the key dates of the Great Trek, and said, “What would you like to talk about?”
A profound silence fell instantly on the classroom. It was an astonishing sentence. It was unheard of. It was revolutionary, subversive, wonderful, terrifying and potentially mutinous.
It might have lasted only five or six seconds, but it felt like hours. It felt, as I think about it now, as if a vast, invisible hand had torn a gigantic hole in the fabric of the universe, and the world had stopped spinning on its axis, and the moon and the planets and the sun had turned to look in awe at the revealed mysteries of their existence.
Then we heard the speculative voice of Mobbs, the undisputed brain of Standard Three, and Mobbs spake thus: