Forty years ago, we were all in Hell

Harry Jones Roar Guru

By Harry Jones, Harry Jones is a Roar Guru


270 Have your say

Popular article! 5,020 reads

    “He’s dead.”

    I had just arrived at the netball courts where the boys gathered for hair, uniform and fingernail inspection before school.

    We prefects, all in Standard 5, ran the drill. Hair not touching collars. No dirt, no length in the fingernails. Blazer spotless, tie tied, socks up, hat on.

    I heard the words J said. Not a joker, he was the right flank on our Under 14A team, and I was his scavenger partner at 8 and captain. It was Friday, the day before our big rival match.

    “Don’t joke like that, hey.”

    But why did I know exactly who he was talking about? And why were J’s eyes red, he who I had never seen cry, from the age of five?

    “I’m not joking. His mum found him this morning.”

    “F***! You’re serious?”

    J nodded. We weren’t the kind of guys or the kind of culture who hugged. But I almost hugged J in that moment.

    We had seen death; you couldn’t live in Cape Town even in the late seventies in the quietest neighbourhood, above Newlands, and not see a lethal knife fight on Friday payday at the station, or not avoid seeing a body in the commons by a dying fire.

    But A was our friend. We grew up with him. He was the biggest guy in our pack, and none of us forwards were small. He was a champion swimmer. We all swam in his pool from kindergarten years.

    He was strong, like his race car driver dad. Tall like his mum. Dark haired, clear-eyed and finely-featured. Nobody fought with A. In an era when fighting was almost all we did, A was exempt. Too big, too tough and too fast.

    A stayed over at my big, boisterous house sometimes. He always said his prayers, even alone.

    When I stayed over at his quiet house, where his dad refused to speak English, and only wanted to talk about rugby as we helped him in the garage, we washed our hands with kerosine, before the braai.

    His prayers at his own house, each of us in our small beds, with his pretty mother kneeling between us, were longer and bolder. And he always added: “Dear Father in Heaven, make me a girl.” And he would tell his mum and me: “I wish I was a girl. I wish I was a girl.”

    His mum would shush him, in case his dad would hear in that softly angry house.

    The dark mountain seemed close, even closer than it should have been. The backside of Table Mountain, said to be the haunt of the Devil himself, smoking his demonic pipe.

    The tuck shop which sold meat pies and apples closed because the first bell rang. Almost all the students had mustered.

    It was the time when I was supposed to call the boys into lines, from Standard 1 (Grade 3) to Standard 5 (Grade 7), separated into classrooms A through E.

    J and I stood next to each other, starving for some way to support each other, and on the verge of tears. G arrived a bit late. Our funniest friend. A fleet winger.

    His dad, an eminent doctor, was a drummer at most of our neighbourhood’s wedding parties. That was the house we could have a beer without detection.

    “A killed himself,” I blurted to G. J looked offended at my words. I knew it sounded harsh. But I needed G to know, quickly. Before he said anything.

    Surfer-blonde, wildly funny G was serious for the first time ever. “Call them. Get them in. Then we talk.”

    I found my voice. Called the Standards, one by one. And we eight prefects inspected each lines’ hair, clothes and hands.

    I’m sure all three of us were thinking about the day before.

    As a foursome, we seemed to have the world of the posh Cape primary school figured out. G made everyone laugh, J was clearly going to be a CEO or an MP, A was like a movie star and I was the bad boy who kept winning at sport and with Miss C-D, the tall and recently divorced drama teacher.

    I couldn’t wait for each new school day. We tormented teachers, but wound up as prefects and leading an unbeaten rugby team. We took delight in being the only “English” school to beat all the Paarl and Stellenbosch sides.

    Life was good; even if we knew we lived in a horribly unfair polity.

    But at times, A annoyed us with his “wish.” And the day before, we sledged him quite hard. We were playing marbles, and “ball” jokes were too tempting.

    We were the nicest guys to A in school, but at 13, we were hardly mature. And sometimes we got tired of defending him.

    You just never think the day you cross the line, and make a guy cry, is going to be the second last day of his life.

    Our classroom was deathly silent before red-eyed Miss L arrived: a first. Some mysterious underground communication system had already worked.

    Mr van G walked in, the Principal and absolute power. I’ll never forget what happened next.

    “Your classmate, A _____, took the coward’s path this morning. He made his mum find him dead. His reasons are in a note. H, J, and G, come with me.”

    Walking down the hall, behind the angular Mr van G, headed to some uncertain horror, I had an odd memory: it was a day with A and his brutish brother and huge monosyllabic father, at the auto races in the far north suburbs, where English was extinct.

    I think that was the best day I saw A with his dad: A avoided being annoying, and we made the gruff giant laugh. Until the drive home, after the beers, when he called A a ‘moffie’ and we all just sat in silence.

    Into Mr van G’s office. The Vice Principal was there, ordinarily smiling, but today, avoiding our glance.

    “You have let your school down. I do not excuse A’s action. He chose sin. The unforgivable sin. But this note makes me sick. I will read it to you.”

    I can’t remember all the words in the note, but enough of them were true, and yet so wildly, deceptively out of context, it made me sick, too.

    I knew the note used our three names but was really all about his father.

    When Mr van G told us all to bend over to take six bloody bamboo ‘cuts’ on our bums, I looked at J and he looked at me and we knew the same thing: “This is so wrong. This is wrong. This is so f***ing wrong.”

    G cried, but J and I stared at Mr van G after he did his best to make us bleed.

    “Thank you, sir.” My sarcasm cut him back.

    We returned to class, disgraced and ready to fight someone. I refused to speak to anyone.

    J and I went to see A’s mum, after school, and on the way, we shared things I cannot repeat. Neither of us had any idea what awaited us.

    But A’s mum hugged us together and we all cried because the presence of a woman made it okay. I saw A’s dad, a broken man, in the corner, in a suit. I never saw him again.

    The next morning, we played in Paarl.

    We were a hushed mixture of rage, embarrassment and normal nerves. Our coach wanted to “win for A,” but it struck a false note of hypocrisy.

    When I spoke to the team, on the field, as we readied for kickoff, I said: “Nobody leaves this f***ing field without blood on your face.”

    There’s a library in A’s name. A family that will never be fully happy again. There are scars not healed, and I don’t want them healed.

    The mysterious nature versus nurture debate is six millennia old. I can’t pretend to know the percentage of environmental and genetic antecedents.

    I will not denounce all the good done by loving clergy, but I was never naive again, after that cruel day. People are always more important than ideology.

    None of us are immune from doubt.

    When I read Israel Folau’s remarks, forty years on, I felt sick again. Not about him having pious beliefs, drawn from an ancient text. He seems sincere. He has a great smile and is trying to be a good man.

    I felt sick because A was a beautiful boy, who might have grown into a wonderful adult. He was full of life. But saw little future as a man.

    We all learned about Hell that day. Here. Now.

    We won the match.

    The Roar encourages all readers who may be suffering from mental illness to seek support from organisations such as Lifeline, Beyond Blue or Headspace.

    Have Your Say

    If not logged in, please enter your name and email before submitting your comment. Please review our comments policy before posting on the Roar.

    Oldest | Newest | Most Recent

    The Crowd Says (270)

    • April 21st 2018 @ 4:36am
      Cuw said | April 21st 2018 @ 4:36am | ! Report


      everyone finds their hell sometime or the other in life……

      • Roar Guru

        April 21st 2018 @ 6:57pm
        Harry Jones said | April 21st 2018 @ 6:57pm | ! Report

        Thanks, cuw.

        After reading about the battle over “rights” in this topic, I felt the missing element was how, even as all involved are pursuing virtue in their own mind, terrible pain can ensue, when a young lad is trapped in this strange dilemma.

        • April 23rd 2018 @ 9:14am
          RTT said | April 23rd 2018 @ 9:14am | ! Report

          Because of interpersonal relationships not what celebrities say

        • Roar Guru

          April 24th 2018 @ 12:22am
          Harry Jones said | April 24th 2018 @ 12:22am | ! Report

          One unexpected and beautiful result of the Roar publishing this essay is the quite large outpouring of experiences and love and thought about this subject; sent directly or indirectly to me.

          A really surprising source came from Mormon leaders, who apparently are active in the Pacific Islands (I did not know this) and are well aware of the sad link between their message being botched, and suicide among young LGBT youth.

          I’ve been given some good links to initiatives to help parents, friends and religious communities prevent suicides by thinking carefully about what we say and do and by welcoming, accepting and supporting the most-struggling in our midst. I have read a little deeper in this topic, now, and I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of experts say it’s impossible to pinpoint the causes of any suicide because research shows there is never a single reason.

          But clearly, the religious and secular can agree that every life is precious, even if they disagree on what a “soul” is and from whence it come or where it goes.

          Isolation is one of the most deadly things. So, I know I should have done better then, and should better now, at assisting the young kids who don’t happen to have great family support, or who are more affected by any message than they “should.”

          Thanks to all who reached out.

          • Roar Guru

            April 24th 2018 @ 12:58am
            Corne Van Vuuren said | April 24th 2018 @ 12:58am | ! Report

            That’s great Harry, I am not an xpert on issues of depression etc. but would agree isolation without support systems is a huge contributing factor for adolescents.

            When teenagers become become self aware and doubt settles over a plethora of issues being alone without someone to advise and guide can be very challenging.

          • Roar Guru

            April 24th 2018 @ 1:35am
            The Neutral View From Sweden said | April 24th 2018 @ 1:35am | ! Report

            I lost on my best mates to suicide ten years ago, The wounds are still raw. The only thing that helps actually is – from time to time – to speak up about and share the experience, the pain and some of the little knowledge it has given me.

            I did a similar exercise like you Harry (I recorded two long conversations I had with my friends’ wife) and put it together and published it on a non-profit culture blog. Some people who don’t know me criticized me for telling “personal stuff about a dead person”, but my friends family and closest childhood friends thanked me.
            And weirdly – and maybe more importantly – since my friend played guitar in one the biggest and most popular rock bands in Sweden (with a pretty dark image), some fans to the band – with serious mental issues around depression – contacted me and thanked me for giving some raw flesh and bones to a story that easily could have become rock-n-roll suicide folklore.

            Thanks again Harry for writing this. You are a fine man.

    • Roar Guru

      April 21st 2018 @ 4:51am
      Corne Van Vuuren said | April 21st 2018 @ 4:51am | ! Report

      Truly beautifully written Harry.

      • April 21st 2018 @ 5:12am
        Rand Curtis said | April 21st 2018 @ 5:12am | ! Report

        Thank you.

      • Roar Guru

        April 21st 2018 @ 7:00pm
        Harry Jones said | April 21st 2018 @ 7:00pm | ! Report

        Thank you, BB. I know you understand the times and the place.

    • April 21st 2018 @ 5:58am
      Pickett said | April 21st 2018 @ 5:58am | ! Report

      Beautiful and moving. Thanks Harry.

      • Roar Guru

        April 21st 2018 @ 7:01pm
        Harry Jones said | April 21st 2018 @ 7:01pm | ! Report

        Thank you, Pickett.

        It took a long time for me to be able to write about this.

        I hope it adds a layer of humanity to the debate.

        • April 23rd 2018 @ 6:27pm
          UKKiwi said | April 23rd 2018 @ 6:27pm | ! Report

          “I hope it adds a layer of humanity to the debate” – that’s exactly what it does Harry.

    • Roar Guru

      April 21st 2018 @ 6:23am
      eagleJack said | April 21st 2018 @ 6:23am | ! Report

      Powerful piece Harry, thank you for sharing.

      Words matter. And in such a lofty position of power and influence, Folau should have been better.

      • April 21st 2018 @ 6:35am
        Cuw said | April 21st 2018 @ 6:35am | ! Report

        it is said – discretion is better part of valor. had IF been discrete , all this hullaballoo will not happen …

        as Trump says – SAD !

      • April 21st 2018 @ 9:31am
        freddieeffer said | April 21st 2018 @ 9:31am | ! Report

        Isn’t it also true eJ that IF is the messenger here, albeit a high-profile one. How many more are sitting in the same pews, in congregations scattered around the planet getting the same doctrinal message from the bible. I’ve been surprised how/why the analysis hasn’t shifted away from IF and to challenging the doctrine. To use a footie analogy, the sides have been playing the person and not the ball. This has entered injurious territory now.

      • April 21st 2018 @ 11:35am
        Jacko said | April 21st 2018 @ 11:35am | ! Report

        guys I am sorry but this article clearly proves that these issues have been around far longer than IF has and have very little to do with a sports stars opinion. The world may be a very sad place at times but to blame IF is a massive stretch and does nothing to help anyone having these issues.

        • April 21st 2018 @ 12:11pm
          Council said | April 21st 2018 @ 12:11pm | ! Report

          Mate this Reinforces the fact that words can and will push people to extremes, that attitudes like these will push people into the darkest and coldest of places.

          In respect of the article, Harry and A please refrain from dragging this article into another slinging match.

          • Roar Guru

            April 21st 2018 @ 7:09pm
            Harry Jones said | April 21st 2018 @ 7:09pm | ! Report


            Yes, I think at that delicate age, a lot of kids can feel no hope.

            If we can just get them through it, with a little kindness, they often make a good path in their 20s/30s.

        • Roar Guru

          April 21st 2018 @ 12:34pm
          The Neutral View From Sweden said | April 21st 2018 @ 12:34pm | ! Report

          Why are you sorry? I think everyone knows this is older than Israel Folau.

          Stop arguing with windmills Jacko.

        • April 21st 2018 @ 1:43pm
          i miss the force said | April 21st 2018 @ 1:43pm | ! Report

          you are now ahead of Rugby tragic too in the obnoxious stakes

        • April 21st 2018 @ 4:16pm
          hopalong said | April 21st 2018 @ 4:16pm | ! Report

          Moving read.Thank you Harry.

          • Roar Guru

            April 21st 2018 @ 7:10pm
            Harry Jones said | April 21st 2018 @ 7:10pm | ! Report

            Thank you for reading, hopalong.

      • Roar Guru

        April 21st 2018 @ 7:07pm
        Harry Jones said | April 21st 2018 @ 7:07pm | ! Report


        Yes, so much of how this “society” works well depends not on “law and order,” but on our own loving restraint.

        The things I’d love to “unsay.”

    • April 21st 2018 @ 6:47am
      Englishbob said | April 21st 2018 @ 6:47am | ! Report

      A brilliant piece Harry, thank you for sharing it with us.

      No book, anywhere ever, is worth one child or adults life

      • Roar Guru

        April 21st 2018 @ 7:18pm
        Harry Jones said | April 21st 2018 @ 7:18pm | ! Report

        Yes, Englishbob. I so agree.

        I know A would’ve had a hard road. But I would hope to have walked it with him, and I’ll never lose a feeling of deep loss. My hope is this could alter the perception of some who haven’t thought through to the end of this kind of struggle.

    • April 21st 2018 @ 7:04am
      Ken Catchpole’s Other Leg said | April 21st 2018 @ 7:04am | ! Report

      EJ, this is not about Izzy any more. The cat was let out of the bag and Izzy cannot herd it back in. The great positive in all this is pieces of truth like Harry’s here are given audience.

      Brilliant and brave piece of writing Harry.
      To borrow from another – we are not punished for our silly words. We are punished by them.
      To err is human. To forgive is to transcend our mistakes.
      Peace to you Harry.

      • Roar Guru

        April 21st 2018 @ 12:02pm
        rebel said | April 21st 2018 @ 12:02pm | ! Report

        I agree it is the message that needs to change. Tragic story Harry, I feel for you and all involved.

      • Roar Guru

        April 21st 2018 @ 7:21pm
        Harry Jones said | April 21st 2018 @ 7:21pm | ! Report


        I love a good sledge, I was never a “nice” player, and I don’t think I’m particularly PC, but this childhood shock changed me forever. There’s a “line.” I try to find it, and err on the side of love. That’s all.

        • April 21st 2018 @ 7:45pm
          c said | April 21st 2018 @ 7:45pm | ! Report

          That is it all people are to be embraced cared for and loved

        • April 23rd 2018 @ 1:53am
          Cuw said | April 23rd 2018 @ 1:53am | ! Report

          @ Harry Jones :

          isnt it interesting that there has not been any sledges reported in cricket about this ……

          if there was i have not read about it.

          • Roar Guru

            April 23rd 2018 @ 7:43am
            Harry Jones said | April 23rd 2018 @ 7:43am | ! Report

            Back in the day, at least 90% of cricket sledges were “prurient.”