I was standing, shivering in the morning cold, waiting for the school bus. There was a line of men, blacks, who were not in a queue and were not waiting for the bus. They had come from the squatter camp down the road. Those who preferred euphemisms would refer to the camp as an informal settlement. I’d never been inside the camps, a labyrinth of shacks constructed from corrugated iron, where running water and latrines were inexistent and the smoke from cooking fires would hang low in the evening air. But it was morning now, and the men were there waiting for piece work. A pick-up truck, locally known as a bakkie, would drive past and the men would break ranks and run wildly, waving their arms, hoping for a day’s work shoveling or lifting or gardening or any other sort of heavy unskilled labour that would gain them wages to be spent on pap, beer at the local drinking house, locally known as a shebeen and perhaps even a turn at the brothel. There were many men, fifty or more, and I knew that many of them, especially the elderly, wouldn’t find employment and would perhaps go hungry that night. I wondered where they came from, for a few years back the camp hadn’t existed, there was nothing but vacant mine land, with a seam of gold ore two kilometers down and mountains of sand spread about the surface. The camps had sprung up around the city like mushrooms, every day they spread further, with two new arrivals for every one that left. I supposed they came from the homelands, or perhaps from across the border, I shall never know because I never spoke to them. They made me uneasy, I could see the wretchedness in their eyes, and as I prepared myself for the horrors that lay ahead at school, I knew that things could always be a lot worse.
The bus arrived, and I mounted. Often the bus arrived before me on those winter mornings, when I struggled to drag myself from bed and dress and eat in the dark before sunrise. I’d sprint down the main road, my suitcase clutched under my right arm, and pray for a red light. Classmates would be laughing and pointing, and if the bus didn’t stop I’d have to ride my bicycle the seven kilometers to school, arrive late and be punished. I wasn’t late for once, and as I walked down the isle of the bus I searched in vain for a seat. There was an informal seating order, youngest to the front, eldest to the back, the tough kids took a bench to themselves and pulled out their compasses and ninja stars to carve the wooden backs and metal walls and perhaps tear out the stuffing of the seats. Sometimes I’d just stand and ignore the abuse thrown at me from all directions. I couldn’t tell you why they hated me so, I think it was hate of the idle and ignorant kind. We were all bored, frustrated, unhappy, and we took it out on each other. I wasn’t a bully, but there sure wasn’t a shortage of those.
At school we had inspection, hair length, not too long, not too short, shaving, tie, neatly knotted, shirt, white, blazer, trousers, of the correct length and colour, shoes, polished and of the correct colour. Appearance was paramount and the slightest deviation was punished. There was a poor kid named Roger who had the misfortune to grow taller than his elder brother and was admonished for the shortness of his trousers. The school sported a second hand store for those who were unable to procure new fitting clothes, and the nonconformists were sent to find a more presentable article.
After inspection we lined up for assembly, where the head master and his entourage read from the bible, spoke of honour, ethics and morality. At some point during this period we were bade to sit, cross-legged, upon the icy floor. Once we had finally thawed the surface we were instructed to stand and we sang hymns and the national anthem, while the prefects who were aligned along either side of the hall carefully watched us to ensure that we were singing with gusto. The prefects were final year students, specially selected and granted the honour of acting as foot soldiers and snitches for the teachers. Defectors would be withdrawn from the ranks and sent for punishment.
Assembly would draw to a close and we would go to our homerooms in groups of thirty or so, a moment of relaxation, where the teachers would perform role call to ensure there were no truant students. Role call would occasionally be performed before assembly to catch those who might try and arrive late and slip directly into homeroom thus avoiding assembly. We broke out our rosters, checked our time tables and broke for our first class. Before there had been a bell that would ring before class, but I believe this constant ringing annoyed the head master who decreed henceforth that we should all wear wristwatches and ensure our own punctual arrival at class. Late arrival was punished. We had approximately four minutes to change classes, which could be located at opposite sides of the school, a distance of no less than six hundred meters. With over fifteen hundred students bustling in every direction, this presented quite a challenge, and on that particular day I was forced to run to ensure I arrived on time. As I crossed the corridors I remarked that the first year students were still wearing their name badges. A first year caught without his name badge was punished and would have to wear a larger name badge. One repeat offender had a name badge the size of his chest. His name was “Ahmed”.
At my first class we were instructed to line up in order of height, shortest to tallest, so that the teacher would see “just one head”. We filed into class, and sat down in alphabetical order. The teacher announced that we would be reorganized in order of grade. As I had the highest grade I was seated in the back corner, which was pleasant as my surname begins with the letter ‘C’ and thus I was previously seated near the front of the class where I was the target for missiles of paper, pencil sharpenings, chewing gum and any other describable object.
We cycled through courses of language, mathematics, science, bible study, the usual curriculum. There was a lunch break at 10:30 where we would huddle in circles in the courtyard and I would hungrily eye the food others had bought from the tuck shop - vetkooks filled with beef mince and dripping in grease, or hotdogs and ketchup, or tuna mayonnaise toasted sandwiches. I had Marmite sandwiches, as always, two slices of industrial bread and a think layer of black yeast extract. The social interaction was entirely what one might expect of the environment, the students avoided the prefects, fought amongst themselves, or simply stared at the walls. I got into a fight, nothing unusual, one of several bullies pushed me around a bit, fists were flung, noses were bloodied, and I found myself in the head master’s office.
The head master was a giant of a man, his height equaled his girth, his head balding, with small eyes and a pig nose. It would be kind to say that I did not like him. I was punished, as I expected to be, with six strikes of the cane and detention. The detention was worse as it would mean I would have to take the late bus home. It was possible to slip detention by going to athletics practice, because although discipline was important, winning the inter-school athletics meet was essential. Academics took a back seat to Sport at my school. I was good at running, a fine swimmer too, but alas I had made the fatal error of making the state chess team, which meant I bore a scroll sewn upon my blazer. The scroll I would have torn it off, but the blazer itself had changed too, no longer the homely black-green-purple Chappie-wrapper pattern, but bright green; I was forced to wear it with pride and be mocked at every turn for my evident intellect. Chappies by the way were a popular brand of chewing that the Portuguese merchants would happily return in the place of small change at the corner cafe. I don’t know why it was always the Portuguese who ran the corner cafes, but the Chappies had the same colour and pattern as our school uniforms. Except for mine, and the prefects. I bore the mark of the hated.
The clock slowly wound around to 2 pm, I went to athletics practice and then thought better and caught the early bus home. We stopped at the Afrikaans school to let a few more students on. The Afrikaans students were terrifying, the average student from their school was rougher and meaner than any bully from mine. Additionally, they spoke a language of which I had but a passing understanding. I was sitting on a bench seat, alone, when an Afrikaans girl sat down next to me. I didn’t recognize her, I assumed she was new and hadn’t learnt the lay of the land yet. She didn’t know that I was contaminated, that no one sat next to me. And then she spoke to me.
I was embarrassed to not understand what she said, but then she changed into English, fluent with the slightest of accents. She told me that she was new and that she hated her school. I told her that I wasn’t new but I hated mine. Much to my surprise she continued talking to me, she made jokes and we laughed. At her stop she convinced me to alight, saying I could always catch the late bus home. I followed her to her house. She lived in a depressed part of town, where the houses were old. In a city founded less than a hundred years ago, houses fifty years old were considered old. Back when the mines were still running they had built simple houses for their employees in neat rows, each equipped with a living room, bedroom and kitchenette. She shared the house with her single mother who was at work. She had a brother in the army, away on the front fighting the war against the communists and Cubans up in Angola somewhere. She lay on her bed and smoked cigarettes, the smoke rising up before a poster of Kurt Cobain. She played heavy metal music loud and asked me what music I liked.
Her name was Jeanine, and she had a scar above her right eyebrow where she had been bitten by a dog when she was young. Her school uniform was tatty, her stockings had holes and I guessed that the Afrikaans school cared less about appearance. She had a braid in her hair, had metal studs in her ears and a stud in her tongue. She told me she had a tattoo on her back but that she couldn’t show me because she would have to remove her uniform.
I’d never kissed a girl before, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to start with her, but she excited me, I appreciated her lack of conformity in a world where we were moulded to all look and act the same. I missed the late bus and phoned my mother from the old lady’s next door who grumbled and complained that Jeanine needed to get a phone of her own. We waited together at the entrance of the estate, when the rain began to fall. She huddled close to me for warmth, and I could feel her hard nipples pressed against the thin wet fabric of my shirt. I could have stood there forever, but my mother arrived, annoyed, and I watched Jeanine fade away in the dark distance between the streams of rain.