My mom is a person of perfection. She is elegant and tall and made from obedience. She is also made to be obeyed. Throughout my primary school-years she insisted on piano lessons, extra-mural activities and academic achievement. In the shadow of her pointed finger and clanking gold bangles I spent half-an-hour before school practicing my scales and every weekday afternoon struggling to perfect things like chess and hurdles and my twelve times table. Then things shifted: One ordinary afternoon her car revved up our farm’s driveway and brought with it its usual fume of panic and “have-I-done-all-my-chores?” But when she pulled open the glass sliding door and stepped into the kitchen, I knew that today the first question wouldn’t be, “Is all your homework done?” Something significant had happened. Her eyes were alive in a new way; not tired or frustrated from the daily rub of farming and expectations. Instead bright and excited, relieved. And in her hand she held up a big, white envelope.
“Look what arrived at the Post Office today, Dakin.” She didn’t even wait for my reply. “You’re in, my chick! You’re going to Pretoria Boys High School!”
And so we began reading through orientation literature and making lists of compulsory clothes, toiletries, books, stationery. Together we completed forms of required information, shopped for my new uniform and argued about buying it one size bigger than needed: “Maah! This blazer is huge on me.”
Later she sewed nametags into white collared shirts and khaki shorts. She stitched them onto the label behind green-and-red-and-white-striped ties and inside grey socks that had those same colors along their top. Then she crafted sock garters out of ribbons of broad elastic that Nanna had found in her sewing room and promised that my He-Man pajamas and A-Team duvet cover would be the envy of everybody there.
That day finally arrives and we are sitting in the dining room of Solomon House. Heavy wooden chairs, eight at a table, slide up to patterned tablecloths underneath sticky, plastic coverings. “Manners Maketh Man” is framed above the doorway and three black men in white chef-like jackets and neat trousers stand, seemingly at attention, in front of the pass-through to the kitchen. The grey in their beards tells of the many groups they’ve seen start this journey. Seventeen “New Boys” and their parents listen intently to Mister van den Aardweg, our Senior Housemaster, welcome us to “a school of old fashioned values” and a “new and exciting chapter in his and your lives.”
Van—his nickname, whispered in the corridors earlier—talks in heavily rounded vowels about “the necessary weaning-off period” and that we “aren’t allowed any contact whatsoever” with our families for the next 28 days. That “experience has shown that this is the best way to break the bonds to home and get your son past his homesickness quickest.” My dad nods in agreement. My mom sits silently between he and I, and just squeezes my hand. I wonder what that would be like, no contact with anybody I know. I think of all of the new rules and worry that I’ll forget one and make a mistake and somehow disappoint Van or my parents. My mind goes back to the grounds tour that we took this morning and how much more imposing the school buildings are in person; big blocks of sandstone standing strong under the weight of copper domes and red roofs. I realize that I’ve already forgotten how to get to the school hall. Then to the unpacking that we had just done—lifting neat squares of clothing out of my blue metal trunk and onto the steel shelves of my assigned locker, my mom swopping piles back and forth, unable to make up her mind about what belongs where. I see my tuckbox alone in the empty blue trunk, locked up and stored in the luggage room down the hallway. I worry about whether I’ll have enough tuck to snack on in the month before my family is able to bring me some more. All the while I feel a big, heavy ball grow larger in my stomach.
Applause brings me back to the dining room where arms are stretched out and introductions are being made. Van’s ash blonde hair, cut in a short, straight fringe, jerks over a large, pasty forehead as he shakes hands with square-shouldered fathers and nods at stone-faced mothers. Words like “fine chap” and “we’re very happy to have him here” and “don’t worry, we’ll keep an eye on him” swim into my ears as I try to remember the name of the boy I just met, the one whose bed is next to mine in our dormitory upstairs.
Outside the sun is setting over the city of tall buildings and malls and parliament on an opposite hill, across the housed valley. I’m standing on the edge of the hostel lawn, watching my mom get into our big silver BMW. My dad starts the ignition, his lips pulled back in a straight-lipped smile. They reverse out of their parking space slowly. I try to smile. The only place I can focus on is the license plate of their car. LYX 735 T. The car drives around the fountain in front of the main school building. I stretch my neck and catch the last glimpse of the bright red taillights as they bounce over a speed bump and disappear down the hill. In my mind I follow them as they take the slow bend down to the bottom terrace of the school estate. They’re driving past the tennis courts and cricket pavilion and athletics track—overwhelming monuments to the excellence that has come before, reminders of what is expected of me.
By now the huddle of silver metal would be rounding Loch Armstrong and following the row of tall, ancient oak and bluegum trees that wood the perimeter. I picture my dad slowing down and taking the final speed bump before passing under the white security boom at the school’s main gate. He’s probably lifting two fingers to his forehead in a nodded salute to the uniformed security guard, just like he acknowledges patrolmen on our farms. A warm trickle runs down my cheek. In their final turn I feel all of them join the buzz of traffic in the apricot haze of early evening. A leafy suburb settles in for the night while they—farmers from the Platteland, just as out of their depth here as I am—settle into the three-hour journey home.
I am thirteen years old. I should not be crying. I pull down the front of my blazer and wish away the water welled inside my eyelids. I turn around, walk across the lawn and up the front steps of Solomon House. Around me tall boys bowl red cricket balls to each other in dusk’s last light. Others sit around and compare stories from their holiday. A few are just arriving—clearly not New Boys—and are dragging their trunks up the wooded stairwell. They high-five friends who stroll around with white shirts untucked, ties a little loose and blazers hooked over their shoulders.
Upstairs it’s a riot of excitement in the Form 1 dormitory. Michael, our dorm prefect, is ushering the last, lingering parents out with half-bows and reassuring words. Everyone seems really happy to be here. If any of them have the same heaviness in their stomach that I do, they’re hiding it. One is telling a clump gathered around his bed about his surfing holiday. His hair is bright orange and untidy, face alive and freckles everywhere. He’s standing on his mattress with his arms out, showing how he caught “the big one.”
“Dude, wow,” coo a couple of replies. Someone calls him “Skeg,” and causes a massive silence. “You know guys, like the fin of a surfboard…”
“SKEG!” booms a voice behind me. “That’s your name from now onwards.” Michael is back in the dormitory: His arms are no longer in a waiter-pose, kindness gone from his voice. “Now get off your mattress. You’re not in your fucking mother’s house anymore.”
Absolute silence. The charming Michael of before is gone and a new Michael stands between enamel-painted bed frames and metal lockers. In the opposite corner of the dorm another group of boys start laughing, quietly. They seem to enjoy Skeg’s scolding. In the middle of the bunch is Jean Pierre, the tallest New Boy by far. They’re all tall though, and seem like they’re a year older than the rest of us. I’m sure that they play rugby and cricket really well. Jean Pierre’s dark, shining hair is parted in the middle and his eyes are a piercing chestnut. His nose points up a little at the tip and his jaw muscles flex every time he clenches his teeth or is about to say something that should be listened to. I notice a hint of acne on his neck, but, even with those pocks, he is the most attractive Form 1 here. I bet the girls from our sister school are going to love him.
Recovered from our shock at Michael’s outburst, we slowly unfreeze and continue with what we are doing. Skeg steps off his bed, sits on its corner and carries on telling his story to a fan of new friends. Even Michael seems to snap back from his rupture and one side of his mouth curls up for a quick moment.
I walk over to my locker and introduce myself to someone called Anton. He looks ordinary and harmless, until Michael walks past him, grabs into his head of tightly curled white-blond hair and yanks him closer:
“And your name is Skaap,” he spits into Anton’s face. “That’s right you cocksucker. Your hair is like sheep’s wool. Are you a fucking albino?” Michael is really enjoying himself. Anton’s head is turned upside-down as he tries to not loose a patch of his spiral blondeness. Our prefect turns to the dorm, “Guys, meet Skaap!”
Someone in Jean Pierre’s group bleats loudly. Michael’s face cracks into a smile. His dark eyes scan the dorm and stop once he gets to Jean Pierre’s corner. I think he winks at them but I can’t be sure. Then he lets go of Anton’s hair and swaggers into his room—the furthest corner of the dorm, cordoned off by several of our metal lockers.
“Right, you pieces of shit,” he shouts from behind his bedroom boundary. “Welcome to Solomon, to five years at Boys High and to hell-on-earth for the next four weeks. Your mamma’s gone and your pappa’s gone. Now it’s just you,” he pauses, “and me.”
Eyes are darting around the room, looking at each other and trying to read how serious we each think he’s being. Skeg gets up slowly and heads to his locker. Jean Pierre elbows someone next to him and they laugh again, but without making a sound. More silence.
“Just to be clear,” Michael continues. “If shark shit had a shadow, that’s how low in the pecking order you are around here. You are nothing. A nobody. Now finish unpacking your precious piles of clothing and get your sorry arses down to the foyer. We all gather there before going into the dining room for supper. The bell will ring twice: A five-minute warning and then again at 6:30. You’ll enter only once everybody else has and you’ll sit at your sad Form 1 tables, furthest away from the kitchen. You get fed last. Wear your blazer to supper, even with sivvies.” Michael steps out of his room and peers around the lockers at us. “Questions?”
“What are sivvies?” Skeg asks, boldly.
“Casual clothes, you wanker.”
The five-minute warning bell rings.
We all disappear into our lockers and pretend to be arranging things for the last time. Van told us earlier that we’re expected to be neat and tidy at all times. He smiled at our parents when he warned of regular locker inspections and got serious again when he covered the hostel’s corporal punishment policy: We’d get jacked if our lockers failed inspection or if we were discovered talking during evening prep or were found upstairs when we weren’t allowed to be. I’d never been caned before in my life. I’m determined not to get caned here.
Padlocks click into metal latches as steel doors close and secure our possessions. Skaap is the first to leave the dorm, following directions perfectly. I spread out my duvet and start following the rest.
“PARKER! What the fuck is this?” roars behind me. Michael’s face is red with anger and everybody else shuffles through the doorway even faster.
“What is w-w-what?” I stammer.
Michael points a stubby finger at my duvet cover—a light-blue collage of the four characters from The A Team: Hannibal Smith, Face, B.A. Baracus and Murdock. We are alone in the dorm now.
“This duvet cover, you faggot!” Now his voice is affected and mocking: “Did your mommy buy this cute little duvet cover for her precious little boy?” His wrists all bent. A silence that stretches into the furthest corner of the school grounds. And then more screaming: “Take it off right now, and don’t let me ever see it anywhere in this dorm again, you little poef.”
“It’s the only one I have.” My head bowed down.
“Well then turn it the fuck over!”
The dinner bell rings downstairs.
I hastily obey him, certain I am about to start crying. I straighten the blue-striped design that I usually sleep under but that’s now on top, dash out of the dorm and down the long hallway. I reach the stairs in a deep pant, taking the first flight two steps at a time. As I reach the halfway landing, the dining room door is pulling closed. Click. I am left outside. A thud beats in my chest, again and again; I swear my blazer is moving. I approach the door. It feels like a tomb. Behind it I hear the head prefect says grace—For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly thankful. Amen—and then a thunderstorm of thuds as supper starts with eighty chairs pulled back and sat on. Chatter explodes. I put a clammy hand on the brass doorknob, turn it slowly and walk into the dining room. It is so different to this afternoon. A few boys stop what they’re doing and stare. I place one foot in front of the other, see an open chair and walk towards it.
“Hey! What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” The senior at the head of that table. “Go to the Masters’ table first and excuse yourself. You’re late, dickwad.”
I look over to the far corner of the dining room. Van and the other housemasters are dishing up food, talking, smiling. Around me stainless steel bowls are dropped off at the tables by the same black men from this afternoon. Roast beef is passed along and mashed potato is slopped onto plates. Worn knives and forks clink against each other. Mouths, full of food, burst with peas and stories.
Faster now, I’m walking up the center of the dining room. Someone flicks their wrist so that their fingers snap against each other. I arrive at the Masters’ Table. Their smiling and talking stops.
“I’m sorry that I’m late, Sirs.”
“Why are you late, Parker?” Van. Pause.
“I completely lost track of time, Sir.”
“Go to your table, but let this be the last time.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
I return to my seat at the bottom of the New Boys table. There isn’t much food left in the steel bowls but I empty them onto my plate and start eating. The ball in my stomach fights with every mouthful of food I push down into it.
Supper had barely started when a gavel hits somewhere in a far corner, near to the Masters’ Table—doef, doef, doef. The room falls into immediate and stunning silence as the head prefect, a lanky guy named Paul, rises and says grace again—For what we have just received may the Lord make us truly thankful. Amen. Van stands up and welcomes everybody to a new school year. He thanks the prefect group for arriving a day early to get everything ready for the rest of us and says that he looks forward to the year ahead. His eyes turn serious and his voice goes deeper when he warns us to avoid “getting up to no good” in the opening weeks of the year. Something about last year’s episode that he doesn’t want repeated. His voice rises again when he says that he’d also like to see the house do better in academics and cultural activities this year:
“We can’t win interhouse cricket and rugby, and then come last in the play festival, gentlemen.”
He sits down and Paul looks over the sea of boys’ heads and says, “Carry on.”
Another explosion of activity as boys grab blazers off chair backs and dash out of the dining room. I’m not finished eating but pretend that I don’t want any more supper. I leave with the rest of the New Boys. The food wasn’t that great anyway.
Back in our dormitory Michael tells us how our days and evenings will be structured. His earlier madness seems to have subsided, until he says:
“I hope you got all of that because I’m not fucking going through this again. Now go to your bosses and make yourselves useful, you bunch of bloody babies.”
A “boss” is one of the things my dad was most excited to hear was a tradition at Boys High. When he was at boarding school they had the same thing and he thinks that being a “skiv” to a Form 5 boy—making his bed, polishing his shoes, boiling endless kettles for tea—is a good thing.
My boss is Nigel and I eventually find him sitting in his study, a private room that each Form 5 gets in the hope that they’ll do well in their final matriculation exams. He seems really tall and his shoulder muscles stretch the sleeves of a worn-out white T-shirt. He’s swinging backwards on his chair, balancing it on its two back legs, engrossed in a sports magazine. I stand in the doorway, fidgeting while he continues to read it for a few more minutes.
Scope magazine centerfolds are gummed up on the walls and an empty bookshelf, covered in torn-off stickers, rests up against his wooden desk. Two white cricket pads and a bat lie in a corner, with a ball-box eerily perched on top of the pile. I’d seen a ball-box before but never had to wear one because I never batted in cricket. I’d never bowled either—I was a fielder.
I remember the day of my interview to get into Boys High. The headmaster was asking me all sorts of questions and my mom and dad sat nervously on either side of me—all three of us in large, cushy chairs—hoping that I knew the answers. I’d gotten most of the questions right and things seemed to be going well. Then the headmaster, sitting behind his large oak desk, wearing a grey suit under a black robe, asked me what sport I played.
“I play rugby and cricket, Sir. And I am also on the swimming team.” My graduating class at Lichtenburg Primary School consisted of seven pupils—we were all on every team.
“And in cricket are you a batsman or a bowler, Dakin?” he asked.
“Neither, Sir. I field.”
After the interview my dad told me that everybody fields and that I should have said I was a batsman.
“But I’ve never batted before, Dah,” I said into the silence of the car ride back home.
I hope that Nigel never asks me to clean his ball-box.
“Well, are you going to say hello?” he asks, not unkindly, but without looking up from his mag.
“Hello. I’m Dakin.”
“Ja, I know who you are. How’sit?”
“Um, fine.” An awkward pause. “Michael said that we should come find our bosses and start with our skiv duties.” It is the first time I’ve ever used the word “skiv.”
“Ahh, Dozy. Dozy, Dozy, Dozy…”
I feel confused. There are so many words in this place that I’ve never heard before. Another long pause.
“Dozy means well, but he can be a bit of a prick sometimes, right?”
“I’m sorry…” I start.
“Don’t be. That’s the one thing you should never be. Sorry. You’re here to become a man and men only say sorry when they mean it.”
He finally looks up: “Dozy is Michael’s nickname. I heard him shouting at you lot earlier. Don’t worry about him. His bark is definitely worse than his bite.”
Nigel is smiling at me. I feel a release in my lungs and smile back.
“So tell me a little about yourself, Skiv,” he says. “Pull up a chair. Where are you from?”
I tell Nigel that my parents are chicken farmers and that we’ve lived just outside a small town called Lichtenburg since I was four years old. That we’re English but the town is mainly Afrikaans. That my uncle’s great-great grandfather was the town’s founder. I’m not sure that Nigel needs to get all of this information but he seems to be listening and so I carry on. I tell him about my three younger sisters and the tiny school that I went to before coming here. That everybody went to boarding schools closer to home but that my mom and dad decided that I should come to Boys High.
“Why did they decide that?”
“My dad does a lot of business in Pretoria. One day he and my mom were in the city and they walked past a boy in a uniform. He stood up as they passed and my mom noticed. She stopped and went over to speak to him, asking him why he’d done that. He said that Boys High taught him to always stand up when an adult enters a room, that it was a sign of respect. When they came home that night she said, ‘You’re going to Pretoria Boys High.’”
“And what do you think of it so far?”
I am too afraid to tell Nigel that it is really scary and that I already miss her. I don’t want him to see that I’m not as brave as the other guys. I want him to be proud of me. So I tell him that I’m very excited about being here. That I want to be awarded the Renaissance Man Prize when I am in Form 5. That this is going to be a really cool five years. Nigel smiles at me again and then lists the things he’d like me to do for him on a daily basis. They don’t sound as bad as when Michael—Dozy—barked them out, and I decide to do the things he asks as best as I can and impress him wherever possible.
“Right,” he smiles. “You can start by making me a cup of tea. Milk and one-and-a-half sugars. And then wipe down my cricket pads and wash out my ball-box,” he says before turning back to his magazine article.
Just before nine o’clock I run into the New Boys dormitory. I had so many skiv duties to do and now I’m late. It will be “lights out” any second. The bell rings. Shit! I am still in my sivvies and not in bed like the rest of the dorm is. I half hang my blazer up in my locker, slam the doors shut and jump under my duvet, still wearing my clothes and shoes. I pull the cover up to my neck just as Van and Dozy walk into the dormitory. Somehow neither of them look as evil as they did earlier. Maybe it’s knowing that Nigel has my back, or maybe the Michael of this afternoon has returned, sucking up to Van.
“Good evening, gents,” Van says. He starts walking up one side of the dormitory, stopping at each bed to say something to each New Boy. Dozy is right behind him, laughing gently at all of the right places. My bed is midway down the length of the dorm and Van and Dozy arrive before long. Van pauses and stares at me.
“What did we learn this evening, Dakin?”
“How important it is to be punctual, Sir.”
“Yes.” A longer pause. And then his face changes, lightens. “So you’re our next great pianist. And you’re taking Latin. We’re expecting big things from you, young man.”
“Yes, Sir,” I am beaming now.
“And your parents are chicken farmers, am I right?” he continues.
“So you must know how to cook and carve a roast chicken?”
“I’ll be sure to tell Mrs. Van Den Aardweg. She might need your help in our kitchen one day.”
“I’d be very happy to help, Sir.”
On the other side of the dormitory, behind the row of lockers that runs down the center like a spine, someone makes a loud sucking noise. I immediately fall silent as the two figures move to the next bed. At the end of the row of beds they turn and cross to the other side of the dormitory, behind the lockers and out of sight. There is a lot of chatting and laughing when Van and Michael get to Jean Pierre’s bed. Turns out JP is a provincial athlete who ran hurdles and competed in long jump for Northern Transvaal. He came third in both events at the National Athletics Meet last year. Van says that he’s really looking forward to athletics season.
“Right boys. You have 20 minutes of talking time and then I want complete silence,” Van says, back at the door. The lights go out and the door creaks closed.
It takes a while for the chatting to start and then build into a cacophony of voices. Mostly boys stay in their beds and chat to their neighbor about their boss and what duties they have and how cool he is. I crawl out from under my duvet, slip my shoes off and change into my pajamas. As I crawl back into bed Anton asks how things went with my skiv duties.
“Ok,” I answer. I’m not sure I want to be friends with him.
“Do you want some of my tuck?” he asks.
I suddenly realize how hungry I am.
“No thank you.” I turn my back towards him and pretend to fall asleep.