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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.