- Published: 5 June 2006
- ISBN: 9780143004554
- Imprint: Penguin
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 640
- RRP: $24.99
The Power Of One
This is what happened.
Before my life started properly, I was doing the usual mewling and sucking, which in my case occurred on a pair of huge, soft black breasts. In the African tradition I continued to suckle for my first two and a half years after which my Zulu wet nurse became my nanny. She was a person made for laughter, warmth and softness and she would clasp me to her breasts and stroke my golden curls with a hand so large it seemed to contain my whole head. My hurts were soothed with a song about a brave young warrior hunting a lion and a women’s song about doing the washing down on the big rock beside the river where, at sunset, the baboons would come out of the hills to drink.
My life proper started at the age of five when my mother had her nervous breakdown. I was torn from my lovely black nanny with her big white smile and sent to boarding school.
Then began a time of yellow wedges of pumpkin, burnt black and bitter at the edges; mashed potato with glassy lumps; meat aproned with gristle in grey gravy; diced carrots; warm, wet, flatulent cabbage; beds that wet themselves in the morning; and an entirely new sensation called loneliness.
I was the youngest child in the school by two years, and I spoke only English, the infected tongue that had spread like a plague into the sacred land and contaminated the pure, sweet waters of Afrikanerdom.
The Boer War had created a great malevolence for the English, for the Rooineks. It was a hate that had entered their bloodstream and pocked the hearts and minds of the next generation. To their barefoot sons, I was the first live example of the congenital hate they carried for my kind.
I spoke the language which had pronounced the sentences that had killed their grandfathers and sent their grandmothers to the world’s first concentration camps, where they died like flies from dysentery, malaria and black water fever. To the bitter Calvanist farmers, the sins of the fathers had been visited upon the sons, unto the third generation. I was infected.
I had had no previous warning that I was wicked and it came as a fearful surprise. I was blubbing to myself in the little kids’ dormitory when suddenly I was dragged from under my horrid camphor-smelling blanket by two eleven-year-olds and taken to the seniors’ dormitory, to stand trial before the council of war.
My trial, of course, was a travesty of justice. But then what could I expect? I had been caught deep behind enemy lines and everyone, even a five-year-old, knows this means the death sentence. I stood gibbering, unable to understand the language of the stentorian twelve-year-old judge, or the reason for the hilarity when sentence was passed. But I guessed the worst.
I wasn’t quite sure what death was. I knew it was something that happened on the farm in the slaughter house to pigs and goats and an occasional heifer. The squeal from the pigs was so awful that I knew it wasn’t much of an experience, even for pigs.
And I knew something else for sure; death wasn’t as good as life. Now death was about to happen to me before I could really get the hang of life. Trying hard to hold back my tears, I was dragged off.
It must have been a full moon that night because the shower room was bathed in blue light. The stark granite walls of the shower recesses stood sharply angled against the wet cement floor. I had never been in a shower room before and this place resembled the slaughter house on the farm. It even smelt the same, of urine and blue carbolic soap, so I guessed this was where my death would take place.
My eyes were a bit swollen from crying but I could see where the meat hooks were supposed to hang. Each granite slab had a pipe protruding from the wall behind it with a knob on the end. They would suspend me from one of these and I would be dead, just like the pigs.
I was told to remove my pyjamas and to kneel inside the shower recess facing the wall. I looked directly down into the hole in the floor where all the blood would drain away.
I closed my eyes and said a silent, sobbing prayer. My prayer wasn’t to God, but to my nanny. It seemed the more urgent thing to do. When she couldn’t solve a problem for me she’d say, ‘We must ask Inkosi-Inkosikazi, the great medicine man, he will know what to do.’ Although we never actually called on the services of the great man it didn’t seem to matter; it was comforting to know he was available when needed.
But it was too late to get a message through to Nanny, much less have her pass it on. I felt a sudden splash on my neck and then warm blood trickled over my trembling naked body across the cold cement floor and into the drain. Funny, I didn’t feel dead. But there you go. Who knows what dead feels like?
When the Judge and his council of war had all pissed on me, they left. After a while it got very quiet, just a drip, drip, drip from someplace overhead and a sniff from me that sounded as though it came from somewhere else.
As I had never seen a shower I didn’t know how to turn one on and so had no way of washing myself. I had always been bathed by my nanny in a tin tub in front of the kitchen stove. I’d stand up and she’d soap me all over, and Dee and Dum, the two kitchen maids who were twins, would giggle behind their hands when she soaped my little acorn. Sometimes it would just stand right up on its own and everyone would have an extra good giggle. That’s how I knew it was special. Just how special I was soon to find out.
I tried to dry myself with my pyjamas, which were wet in patches from lying on the floor, and then I put them back on. I didn’t bother to do up the buttons because my hands were shaking a lot. I wandered around that big dark place until I found the small kids’ dormitory. There I crept under my blanket and came to the end of my first day in life.
I am unable to report that the second day of my life was much better than the first. Things started to go wrong from the moment I awoke. Kids surrounded my bed holding their noses and making loud groaning sounds. Let me tell you something, there was plenty to groan about. I smelt worse than a Kaffir toilet, worse than the pigs at home. Worse even than both put together.
The kids scattered as a very large person with a smudge of dark hair above her lip entered. It was the same lady who had left me in the dormitory the previous evening. ‘Good morning, Mevrou!’ the kids chorused, each standing stiffly to attention at the foot of his bed.
The large person called Mevrou glared at me. ‘Kom,’ she said in a fierce voice. Grabbing me by the ear she twisted me out of the stinking bed and led me back to the slaughter house. With her free hand she removed my unbuttoned pyjama jacket and pulled my pants down to my ankles. ‘Step,’ she barked.
I thought desperately, she’s even bigger than Nanny. If she pisses on me I will surely drown. I stepped out of my pyjama pants, and releasing my ear she pushed me into the shower recess. There was a sudden hissing sound and needles of icy water drilled into me.
If you’ve never had a shower or even an unexpected icy-cold drenching, it’s not too hard to believe that maybe this is death. I had my eyes tightly shut but the hail of water was remorseless, a thousand pricks at a time drilling into my skin. How could so much piss possibly come out of one person?
Death was cold as ice. Hell was supposed to be fire and brimstone and here I was freezing to death. It was very frightening, but like so much lately, quite the opposite to what I had been led to expect.
‘When you go to boarding school you’ll sleep in a big room with lots of little friends so you won’t be afraid of the dark anymore.’ How exciting it had all sounded.
The fierce hissing noise and the deluge of icy piss stopped suddenly. I opened my eyes to find no Mevrou. Instead, the Judge stood before me, his pyjama sleeve rolled up, his arm wet where he’d reached in to turn off the shower. Behind him stood the jury and all the smaller kids from my dormitory.
As the water cleared from my eyes I tried to smile gratefully. The Judge’s wet arm shot out; grabbing me by the wrist he jerked me out of the granite recess. The jury formed a ring around me as I stood frightened, my hands cupped over my scrotum. My teeth chattering out of control, a weird, glassy syncopation inside my head. The Judge reached out again, and taking both my wrists in one large hand he pulled my hands away and pointed to my tiny acorn. ‘Why you piss your bed, Rooinek?’ he asked.
‘Hey, look, there is no hat on his snake!’ someone yelled. They all crowded closer, delighted at this monstrous find.
‘Pisskop! Pisskop!’ one of the smaller kids shouted and in a moment all the small kids were chanting it.
‘You hear, you a pisshead,’ the Judge translated. ‘Who cut the hat off your snake, Pisskop?’
I looked down to where he was pointing, my teeth changing into a quieter timpani. All looked perfectly normal to me, although the tip was a bright blue colour and had almost disappeared into its neat round collar of skin. I looked up at the Judge, confused.
The Judge dropped my arms and using both his hands parted his pyjama fly. His ‘snake’, monstrously large, hung level with my eyes and seemed to be made of a continuous sheath brought down to a point of ragged skin. A few stray hairs grew at its base and, I must say, it wasn’t much of a sight.
More serious trouble lay ahead of me for sure. I was a Rooinek and a pisskop. I spoke the wrong language. And now I was obviously made differently. But I was still alive, and in my book: where there’s life, there’s hope.
By the end of the first term I had reduced my persecution time to no more than an hour a day. I had the art of survival almost down pat. Except for one thing: I had become a chronic bed wetter.
It is impossible to be a perfect adapter if you leave a wet patch behind you every morning. My day would begin with a bed-wetting caning from Mevrou, after which I would make the tedious journey alone to the showers to wash my rubber sheet. When the blue carbolic soap was rubbed against the stiff cane bristles of the large wooden scrubbing brush I was made to use, fiercely stinging specks of soap would shoot up into my eyes. But I soon worked out that you didn’t need the soap like Mevrou said; you could give the sheet a good go under the shower and it would be okay.
My morning routine did serve a useful purpose. I learned that crying is a luxury good adapters have to forgo. I soon had the school record for being thrashed. The Judge said so. It was the first time in my life that I owned something that wasn’t a positive disadvantage to adaptation. I wasn’t just a hated Rooinek and a pisskop, I was also a record holder. I can tell you it felt good.
The Judge ordered that I only be beaten up a little at a time. A punch here, a flat-hander there, and if I could stop being a pisskop he’d stop even that, although he added that, for a Rooinek, this was probably impossible. I must confess, I was inclined to agree. No amount of resolve on my part or saying prayers to Nanny or even to God seemed to have the least effect.
Maybe it had something to do with my defective acorn? I forced a hole in the side pockets of my shorts through which my forefinger and thumb would fit. I took secretly to pulling my foreskin and holding it over the tip of my acorn as long as I could in the hope that it would lose elasticity and render me normal. Alas, except for a sore acorn, nothing happened. I was doomed to be a pisshead for the rest of my life.
The end of the first term finally came. I was to return home for the May holidays: home to Nanny who would listen to my sadness and sleep on her mat at the foot of my bed so the bogey man couldn’t get me. I also intended to enquire whether my mother had stopped breaking down so I would be allowed to stay home.
I rode home joyfully in the dicky-seat of Dr ‘Henny’ Boshoff’s shiny new Chevrolet coupé. Dr Henny was a local hero who played fly-half for the Northern Transvaal rugby team. When the Judge saw who had come to pick me up, he shook me by the hand and promised things would be better next term.
It was Dr Henny who had first told me about the nervous breakdown, and he now confirmed that my mother was ‘coming along nicely’ but her nervous breakdown was still with her and she wouldn’t be home just yet.
Sadly this put the kibosh on my chances of staying home and never leaving again until I was as old as my grandpa, maybe not even then.
As we choofed along in the car, with me in the dicky-seat open to the wind and the sunshine, I was no longer a Rooinek and a pisskop but became a great chief. We passed through African villages where squawking chickens, pumping wings desperately, fled out of the way and yapping Kaffir dogs, all ribs and snout and brindle markings, gave chase. Although only after my speeding throne had safely passed. As a great chief I was naturally above such common goings-on. Life was good. I can tell you for certain, life was very good.
Nanny wept tears that ran down her cheeks and splashed onto her huge, warm breasts. She kept rubbing her large, dark hand over my shaven head, moaning and groaning as she held me close. I had expected to do all the crying when I got home but there was no competing with her.
It was late summer. The days were filled with song as the field women picked cotton, working their way down the long rows, chatting and singing in perfect harmony while they plucked the fluffy white fibre heads from the sun-blackened cotton bolls.
Nanny sent a message to Inkosi-Inkosikazi to the effect that we urgently needed to see him on the matter of the child’s night water. The message was put on the drums and in two days we heard that the great medicine man would call in a fortnight or so on his way to visit Modjadji, the great rain queen.
The whites of Nanny’s eyes would grow big and her cheeks puff out as she talked about the greatness of Inkosi-Inkosikazi. ‘He will dry your bed with one throw of the shin-bones of the great white ox,’ she promised.
‘Will he also grow skin over my acorn?’ I demanded to know. She clutched me to her breast and her answer was lost in the heaving of her belly as she chortled all over me.
The problem of the night water was much discussed by the field women who pondered deeply that a matter so slight could bring the great one to visit. ‘Surely a grass sleeping mat will dry in the morning sun? This is not a matter of proper concern for the greatest medicine man in Africa.’
It was all right for them, of course. They didn’t have to go back to the Judge and Mevrou.
In that crowded city, she had worked for a haberdasher and presided over the slow death of her mother, after which she’d discovered in herself an unexpected yearning to leave Ireland and see the world.
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Ethan Salt tip-toed to the very edge of the tenement rooftop, rolling his special poster into a perfect telescope.
After more than two weeks at sea to simmer the tension between them, Violet and Daisie Chettle couldn’t stand each other, let alone stand next to each other.
As the new year of 1910 moved closer to its second month, the world marvelled that there had been so few deaths in Paris when the River Seine rose more than eight metres and flooded the city.