On account of being the youngest of three brothers, my mother referred to me as her baby. This label stuck with me into late in my life and when we met up with older people a common introduction would be, “…and this is Daniel, the baby.” The standard response would be, “Oh my word, he’s big.”
My mother refused to send me to crèche. To add to that she held me back a year before I was allowed to go to primary school because, according to her, I was too small. Finally, she had no choice but to walk me to school one day to start Sub A at Greenturf Primary School.
When I walked into the class, I knew that this was where I belonged. Today, I still enjoy the smell of wax crayons. I went to sit at my desk and watched my mother turn around one last time to wave at me. I had grown much older and gotten married by the time that I realised that my first day at school was more difficult for my mother than for me. By that time, she had already died.
Primary school had its little nooks that each had its own story. I was sitting in one of those spaces when I got to know a boy with the delightful name of April. Not everyone brought lunch to school every day and under the guise of swapping sandwiches we managed to ensure that everyone in our circle got something to eat. April joined the group one day. I didn’t understand why no-one seemed to be enthusiastic about helping themselves to April’s sandwiches until I swapped one of my sandwiches for one of his. This was around the time that my mother started selling polony in the neighbourhood.
When we spoke about polony, it was a blanket term for all sorts of cold meats and cold cuts that came in large blocks or rolls. Mommy managed to get a meat slicer which she used to slice the rolls of various polonies into thin pieces. These slices were in turn counted out into heaps which were wrapped into greaseproof paper according to the orders that she received. She used a koki pen to write the amount of each order on the wrapped parcel of polony. For many of the customers who didn’t collect their orders, she would ask me to deliver in the afternoons after school.
I was not sure what inspired the entrepreneurial drive. Mummy had always been home to look after us and to take care of the home. She was a housewife. It had not occurred to me that she might want to do anything else. We seemed to live comfortably enough at the time. So, making extra money could not have been a factor in her decision. For some reason, she started to sell polony.
The business model was fairly simple. She became an agent for Lance Seale who would drop off different types of polonies which she would sell to people in the neighbourhood. Once a week, he would return to collect the money that was due to him and deliver a fresh supply.
I often had polony sandwiches for school lunch. April’s lunch comprised of two slices of brown bread spread with cooking oil from the previous night’s supper. I ate his sandwich the first time and for several weeks thereafter. April and I continued swapping sandwiches until someone in our group went to tell one of our teachers who put a stop to it.
Aunty Doreen was one of Mummy’s friends. She lived a few streets away from us and most afternoons she would pop in for a cup of tea. At least, once a week those visits would also be the occasion for her to collect her polony order and pay for the previous week’s order.
“Children mustn’t sit in adults’ company,” Mommy always said. When Aunty Doreen or any adult came to visit during the afternoons that the two of us were alone at home, I would greet and go to my room. But I found a spot at the top of the staircase where I could sit and listen in on the conversation without them seeing me. in fact, if I positioned myself just right, I could even see their reflections in the mirror of the display cabinet that stood across from them in the living room.
Those afternoons after school passed by fast enough. I had some toys and I had started swapping comics with my cousins. On Friday afternoons, I used my pocket-money to buy comics at the café close to our home. By that time I had started to build up a large collection of comics – mostly of the Incredible Hulk – which I could turn to when the afternoon dragged on.
Greenturf Primary School, in Greenturf Road, Hanover Park, was next to Crystal Senior Secondary School. Crystal was on fire during those years – alive with protests, or “the riots” as my parents preferred to refer to those events. I recall being told to march behind a few high school students as they led us out of our school grounds to Crystal to attend my first protest rally at the advanced age of nine years. Some of the parents came to rescue their children from the evils of Communist propaganda before the rally ended.
My mother though remained unaware of the event and I didn’t want to tell her about it and so distract her from her Springbok Radio serial when I arrived home later in the afternoon. She was content with the knowledge that I was receiving a solid Coloured Affairs education and thus I was protected from the powers that were trying to topple the government appointed by God.
Auntie Doreen told her later about the incident and how a rude high school student said, “Auntie, the children are our future. They shouldn’t have to suffer like you did,” and how she replied, “I am not your father’s sister!” My mother said, “No. Daniel didn’t say anything. But he would have known not to go.” Auntie Doreen didn’t pursue the matter but when I went to greet her as she left, she gave me a stern look. I could read her mind. She was thinking, “This child is trouble. Still waters run deep.” I would hear that many times as I got older.
Now that so many years have passed, I cannot say for certain that we were ever given reasons for why our school moved. Perhaps we were, but it was the early part of the 1980’s, and adults were not so big then on getting the buy-in from primary school kids. Perhaps the old building became unsafe and for once the government actually thought to do something that would be to our benefit. Perhaps the school became too small to house all the pupils. I don’t know.
We became Newfields Primary School in Newfields, which was on the outskirts of Hanover Park. We had moved from our familiar setting next to a high school and among Council houses to surroundings where Coloured people owned their houses which did not all look similar to one another. These were koophuise. Each built to a unique plan and not mass produced as our own houses and flats which looked like giant Monopoly pieces.
We hardly saw the people who lived in those fancy houses. It was not like our familiar neighbourhood where people would walk the streets and lean over the fences of their houses. The older women of our former environs were particularly visible and audible. They didn’t hesitate to urge us along when they thought we were loitering too long outside the school instead of walking straight home. They interfered in fights and were eager to put us in our places if we appeared too big for our boots.
But we moved and the old school building stayed behind. I’m not sure who were more worried. Our new neighbours or our teachers. We were instructed to put our best feet forward. We were to take care of our appearances, noise levels and tone down our rich vocabularies. During one PT period, I was lifted on to a desk – barefooted in my white vest and shorts. “This is how you must look,” our PT teacher said to my classmates in their tattered vests and shorts which were the colour of eggshells. Embarrassed, I coyly let my big toe from my best foot dangle over the edge of the desk.
Along with the relocation came Miss Coetzee who was to be our class teacher that year. Miss Coetzee was a woman who was ahead of her time. Long before outcomes-based education and before the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union told teachers not to stress too much, Miss Coetzee believed that students should learn at their own pace. We didn’t learn much in the curriculum that year but we had a lot of fun.
The periods allocated to different subjects blurred into one another as Miss Coetzee shot the breeze with us. Our reverie was only disturbed by the odd bouts of PT, music and intervals. At any point of the day, it was never certain which subject was being taught. The timetable pasted on the wall was merely a guide. Our journey of experimentation ended abruptly when Miss Coetzee disappeared from our lives close to the end of the school year. Again, I cannot recall if we were ever given reasons. Our new class teacher was to be Mrs Baker.
Mrs Baker was also the school’s music teacher. She was a formidable woman in all respects. I once saw her slap Amina Jacobs from out of her seat behind her desk. What Amina did or said wrong is deleted from my memory as are many other things from that year. When Mrs Baker played the upright piano, her feet tapped the pedals at a furious pace while her fingers pounded the keys. I never learnt to play a musical instrument. Mrs Baker’s performances were to me no less than that of a magician at work – pulling a rabbit from a hat, sawing a woman in half or making a large object disappear.
While she inspired fear in all of us, Mrs Baker had a soft spot for me. A few years later, when I was in my last year of primary school, we were in choir practice to rehearse “The Holy City” for the first time as a class. This was our school tradition. At the last school assembly of the year, the departing standard five class would raise their voices and roar, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, lift up your gates and sing!” The point of this first rehearsal was to identify in which voice type each of us would sing. To do this, Mrs Baker walked past us and listening carefully to each singer would say, “First voice, second voice”, and so on. When she came to me, she said, “Daniel, don’t sing; just move your lips.” So, before Milly Vanilli perfected the art, I was lip-synching on stage.
Soon after she took us under her wing, she demonstrated her abilities by showing one of my notebooks to another teacher. “Look,” she said, pointing to how my handwriting had improved from the scrawling lines under Miss Coetzee’s tutelage. Mrs Baker was good for us. She was what we needed. But while appreciative of Mrs Baker’s fondness of me, I was still wary of her temper.
Mrs Baker’s reserve was tested when the oral exams for poetry were looming. During all the time that we were taught by Miss Coetzee, we had learnt only one poem – “The Daffodils.” “Oh no,” Mrs Baker said, “I am not going to listen to the same poem thirty-eight times. You must each find a different poem to learn and to recite for the exam.”
With less than two weeks to go, we faced one of the toughest challenges of our young lives. For some it was tougher than for others. There are not many memories of my primary school years that I remember as vividly as the one of how we all in our peculiar ways tried to surmount that trial.
Perceval Zacharias never struck me as the bookish type. Perceval – I learnt many years later – was also the name of one of the Knights of the Round Table. Galahad was another but then again no-one on the Cape Flats would name their child Galahad. Perceval was bad enough for a name and I doubt that his parents had King Arthur in mind when they had him baptised.
With the exception of me, Enrico Simons was the only person in my class that I ever saw with a book other than a school textbook. Enrico’s specialties were Reader’s Digest condensed books and westerns by Louis L’Amour. But Perceval surprised us.
The next day he appeared at school with a thick volume called something along the lines of “The Great Children’s Treasury of English Verse.” He had borrowed the book from the Hanover Park public library. My heart sank. I was embarrassed by the fact that Perceval had entered my castle and beaten me at my own game. It was no less than Bjorn Borg losing at Wimbledon to a Ping Pong player.
During the first interval, Perceval remained at his desk and took out the object of our collective desire. He called me over. He paged through the book, licking his fingers as he went along, and asked, “Should I do this poem?” But before I could answer he said, “No. Maybe I should do this one.” As he paged, the crumbs from the sandwich that he was eating fell on to the book. He flicked them off casually. I couldn’t help but notice the greasy stains left behind on the pages from where the margarine on his fingers made contact with the book.
The book was a treasure chest. I glimpsed the table of contents and just some of the names of the poems and poets. I remembered some of those names, like Robert Louis Stevenson and William Blake, and got to appreciate them later in my life. Perhaps that is why I still like a poem that rhymes. It was obvious that Perceval was going to hang on to his loot for the full two weeks that the library allowed him. None of us would get access to it before our judgement date with Mrs Baker.
I arrived home that afternoon, feeling deflated. Lance Seale arrived soon after that with the polony. I greeted him and went to my room. After a few minutes, I moved quietly to the spot at the top of the staircase. They weren’t talking and it was only when I saw the reflection in the mirror of the display cabinet that I saw what they were doing.
On the Sunday before my poetry recital, I was saved by the children’s section of The Sunday Times – known as the “Jellybean Journal.” This was a few years before The Sunday Times and I developed a rather tense relationship on account of how the images on the back page made me do things of which God didn’t approve.
In the pages of the “Jellybean Journal” I found a short rhyme in honour of a deer. I had never seen a deer and the lines from that poem were imminently forgettable. But when the turn came for pupils with surnames starting with “W” to go to the front, I recited the lines perfectly. I earned a smile from Mrs Baker and she pencilled in a high mark on her score sheet.
The tension was killing me but finally we meandered our way to the only surname that started with “Z”. Perceval strutted to the front. Mrs Baker must have been unaware of the arsenal to which he had access because from the way that she was tapping her pencil on her desk it was obvious that she didn’t have high expectations. But Perceval caught all of us unawares. Because when he opened his mouth, these were the words that came out: “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” He stopped.
Mrs Baker was so shocked at the pearls that Perceval shared with us, that she forgot the admonition to avoid colourful language in our new surroundings. The blackboard duster flew at Perceval as she shouted, “Don’t talk shit to me!”
When I got home from school that day, Mummy called me and said, “Take this to Aunty Doreen,” as she handed me a parcel of polony.
The route to Aunty Doreen’s house was short and I ran from our door, across the road, and over a sandy field where some kids normally played soccer. After dodging the soccer players, I took a sharp turn and walked the rest of the way along the path to her door. The stern look of that one afternoon was still firmly printed in my mind. So, when she opened the door, I greeted, handed the parcel over and ran back home.
“What did she say?” Mummy asked me when I walked into the door.
I had already run up to the top of the stairs when I shouted back, “Nothing!”
“Daniel,” she called after a few seconds. “Come down here.”
I left the comic on my bed and went down to see what she wanted. “Yes, Mummy?”
“What did Aunty Doreen say?”
“Didn’t she say ‘thank you’?”
My mother had never hit me before that day. Yes, she had raised her voice and shouted at me. She had even sworn at me. So, it is not that I wasn’t aware that she was capable of violence. But I didn’t expect the first blow. I was stunned and caught on the spot as all the other blows followed. It was a while before I started crying. There might have been other incidents later in life; but that day played a big role in teaching me the importance of saying what adults expected to be said as opposed to being honest. She never hit me again after that day.
Stephen Langtry has written mainly non-fiction, which has appeared in publications such as the Mail & Guardian, Daily Maverick and The Johannesburg Review of Books. He is also a regular contributor to the UCT News website.
Stephen is attached to Cornerstone Institute, a private, not-for-profit higher education institution with a focus on social justice. He is currently studying for his Master of Arts in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town.
Follow him on Twitter @StephenLangtry (https://twitter.com/StephenLangtry)