Of overgrown paths

Henry

By Albi Prinsloo

The man stuck in front of me reminds me of a pirate in a children’s book, bald, with an earring in each ear. Probably want to ask for directions, I think and look down at my mobile phone’s screen, there is no time for long explanations now. Around us swirls the dust and heat of grinding bodies and impatient cars. The afternoon has already withered away in everyone’s rush home.

“You were my folk games buddy in Grade 3.” His sentence is as unexpected as a dead man arriving for his own funeral.

People’s Games! I? Could it be?

“Miss Greyling’s class,” he tries to help me out of my stupor – cutting open the clearly overgrown path.

“Christian, Christian Malherbe*.” There are crow’s feet beside his eyes when he smiles. Then grade 3 was still called standard one.

I remember! The shy boy with the blond fringe. Barefoot, like the rest of us, but neat, every hair in its place. Standard 1A, strict Miss Greyling’s class. The teacher with the red Dippity-do hair in the third asbestos class next to the jacaranda tree.

During breaks we played under the very marble tree, jumping rope or with each other touches chased unconscious for a short while. Me, Liza with the pigtails, Gieltjie from 5destraat, Leon de Necker whose mother drove such a flat drop-top and Sonja who could run fast. Alta in front of whose house blue and purple chrysanthemums bloomed in abundance. Pieter Kruger and Christiaan Malherbe.

Pieter and I sat next to each other in the class in our upright benches. One day he showed me something shining, slanting under the sofa. It’s the diamond from his mother’s engagement ring. Got loose and dropped out. Then he asked her if he could come and show us. I asked if I could hold it.

It was the first time I held a diamond that was not mounted in a ring. It was a big moment. My mother would never allow such a thing. In addition, the primary school owed its existence to Sir Thomas Cullinan who in 1902 discovered a diamond pipe in the belly of the earth.

Pieter stored the diamond again in the cloth bag next to the side of his couch. We each had a cloth bag that you had to tie to the iron legs of your sofa. If I remember correctly, the school provided the pattern at the beginning of the year and every mother had to make a cloth bag if necessary. In this you put your pencils and books.

The first class in the asbestos row avoided us. On the door was a poster that read “Special Class”. Miss Dromer, the reformed minister’s wife, taught school there. Just a handful of children and all of different ages.

We weren’t really allowed to mix with these kids or them with us. Usually there was a grade seven prefect on duty to supervise. But sometimes, just sometimes, one of the older boys, Petrus*, would rush out into the dust among our standard ones’ marbles. Petrus with the shiny drops of spit on his chin and arms like a windmill. We would scatter like a flock of sparrows thrown with a stone. Running away screaming, without really understanding.

There was also a little girl who was in first grade with my great sister. Ousus was at school three years before me. I can no longer remember the little girl’s real name, but we called her Gesie, because she was so small in stature. When I went to school three years after my sister, Gesie was also in my grade one class.

At the end of the year, Miss Du Plessis had us all sit on the carpet at the front. She has good news, she announced, but first Gesie has to borrow the teacher next door’s stapler. When Gesie was out the door, she excitedly informed us that we would all be in second grade the following year! Like a bunch of lethargic seven-year-olds, we grabbed each other and jumped up and down for joy.

Gesie started in Miss Dromer’s class the following year.

Christiaan and I say goodbye. When I drove home I remember the folk games in the hall. A compulsory culture period once a week where we had to bow and tiki-twirle tomorrow-oompie-more-aunty.

I think again of Peter and how it felt when he caught you and wrapped his arms around you and screamed over and over against your neck; spit drops raining down your face: “I like you, I like you..!” You couldn’t catch your breath; nor wriggling loose, his grip was too tight.

And how bad it was.

*Not their real names.

  • Albi Prinsloo is a retired journalist.