Chapter 10 : Russell Smith and the Hawthorn Hedge
From that day on, things went from bad to worse…
Prince Edward was considered a big school in those days. There were thirty boys in each class, eight hundred kids in the whole school. So the place had to be policed, and these police were the House Prefects and the Sub-prefects. And the juniors were their minions.
As a new boy in Jameson House, I was assigned to a Prefect called Russell Smith. Smith looked like a German: he sported a crew-cut and had sharp-featured, Arian good looks, and he really rather fancied himself. He always walked on his toes as if he had springs in his heels. ‘Spring-heeled Jack’, they used to call him, though he was a completely uncoordinated human being. He was in 5D, which meant he was as-thick-as-pig-shit and a no-brain fuck-wit. In fact, his brain was entirely absent, and he ended up working in a colliery.
The terrifying thing was that Russell Smith was a House Prefect, so he was allowed to have two or three skivvies to attend to his various chores. One skivvy polished his shoes. Another skivvy did his laundry. And a third skivvy – me – was in charge of Bed and Books. That meant it was my responsibility to make his bed every morning, fetch his books and take them to school.
There was only a limited time in the morning to get up, have a shower, come back, get dressed, make your bed, put on your jumper, go downstairs, line up for Roll Call, file in to breakfast, come back from breakfast, grab your books, and go to class. But as Russell Smith’s skivvy, I had to get up in the morning, have a shower, get dressed, make my bed, go upstairs to his dormitory, knock on the door and say ‘May I come in?’ If by any chance I said, ‘Can I come in?’, I would barely get four steps into the dorm before some clever dick would say, ‘Stop, Anderson! Did you say, “Can I come in?”’
‘Yes,’ I would reply.
‘Well, yes, you can come in – but no, you may not come in. Which means that now you’re in this dormitory without permission, Anderson. What are you going to do about that? What d’you think he should do, guys? Don’t you think he should Run the Gauntlet?’
Running the Gauntlet entailed clambering over-a-bed-under-a-bed-over-a-bed-under-a-bed. And as you went over-a-bed-under-a-bed-over-a-bed-under-a-bed, the Prefects would stand there with belts or – if they’d just had a shower – with their wet towels. And as you clambered over a bed – WHACK with a belt or a towel! And as you went under a bed – BAM with a boot or a shoe!
When you’d completed the Gauntlet, they’d sometimes say, ‘See this? It’s a pillow, my boy! Take this pillow, and go and fuck it on top of that wardrobe. Put the pillow on the wardrobe, and then climb up there and fuck it!’
And they’d chuck the pillow on top of the wardrobe, and you’d have to clamber up after it.
‘Go on! Fuck it! Drive in deep! Go on! Get your cock into that pillow!’
We were 13 years old. We didn’t know what the word ‘fuck’ meant. We knew there was some vague thing called ‘intercourse’, but we didn’t really know what they were talking about. Kids used to humiliate themselves on top of that wardrobe, fucking pillows in front of a mob of pubescent 16- and 17-year olds, all in the senior dorm. Fortunately, I never had to do that. I had to Run the Gauntlet, but I never had to Fuck the Pillow.
So every morning, I’d make Russell Smith’s bed. I’d go down to the prep room to collect his books and my books, and then I’d take them to school.
Every evening, we’d have prep between 7 o’clock and 9 o’clock, and at the end of the first hour, there’d be a break. At the start of the break, the Prefect sitting at the front of the room would have various messages for various juniors.
‘Jones, go and see Beys! Kloppers, go and see van de Merwa!’ And nearly every evening it would be ‘Anderson, go and see Smith!’
And I’d go along to see this Prefect, Smith, who would be sitting there with his feet up on his desk. ‘Ha, Anderson, my friend, come in. And where have you been today?’
‘I’ve been to school,’ I’d say.
‘What have you been doing, Anderson? Have you had a good day?’
‘It was okay.’
Smith didn’t like me because I was rather good at rugby and he wasn’t very good at any sport, because he was so uncoordinated. But, boy, did he fancy himself! And he’d say, ‘So, what have you done wrong today? Go on, Anderson, what have you done wrong today?’
And of course, I’d say, ‘I’ve done nothing wrong.’ (What else was I supposed to say?)
‘You’ve done nothing wrong? Does that mean you’ve done nothing today? Have you done nothing today, Anderson?’
‘I’ve done things.’
‘But you’ve done nothing wrong?’
‘You lazy little fucker! You’ve done nothing wrong today! You lazy bastard! You fucking lazy bastard! Ronnie, isn’t he a lazy bastard for doing nothing wrong?
‘Yeah,’ laughed Ronnie Buys, ‘I think he’s a lazy bastard for doing nothing wrong.’
‘Right, you lazy little bastard, bend down.’ (Smith would grab me.) ‘Bend down!’ (Smith would push me over the table.) ‘See this?’ he’d say, picking up a carved chair leg which had ‘WHACKO’ written on it. And he’d go BANG, BANG and he’d hit me two. As a House Prefect he could only give me two dooks, that was all he was allowed to administer by ‘law of the School’ and ‘law of the House’. But he’d hit me bloody hard!
And he used to hit me every single night – for something, for anything!
One night – it was a Friday – Smith called me into his room. He was white with rage.
‘You’ve forgotten something today at school, haven’t you?’ he hissed.
I’d been practising goal-kicking on the rugby pitch all evening, so I thought for a moment.
‘Ah, yes! Your books!’
‘Yes, my books. What’s more, it’s Saturday tomorrow and the school’s closed, and I want my prep this minute. Now I could go and ask for a key from the Headmaster, but I’m not going to do that, Anderson. You’re going to go and get my books for me. Now! Friday night!’
‘But how am I going to get into the school?’ I asked.
‘You’re going to have to break in, aren’t you?’ Smith smirked. ‘You’re going to have to break into the school and get my books and bring them to me.’
There was little choice. Off I went.
I ventured out into the night, I found a window facing a back street, I prised up the lever and wormed my way through. I scurried through the darkened corridors to Smith’s classroom, opened his desk, grabbed his prep, got the books out of the room, got myself out of the school, and legged it back to his dorm.
‘Thank you very much,’ he said. ‘And now, bend over.’ And he beat me four dooks. Four! With his bloody carved chair leg. ‘That’s two for forgetting my books, and two for breaking into the school.’ That was where Smith’s low-down, fuck-wit mind was at.
* * * *
It didn’t take me long to discover that evening prep could be a mine field.
‘What’s the capital of Finland?’ whispered Louis Heyns to me one prep time. He was a bit sly was Louis Heyns. He never got caught, he never got beaten. He somehow knew the ropes. Whereas I was new, I was naive. I didn’t know how much you could get away with. Or rather how little you could get away with. But he knew, because Heyns was an old lag. He’d already been a boarder for two years in this awful, ghastly place.
‘Helsinki,’ I whispered back, little knowing the hell into which I was about to sink.
Ronnie Buys was on Prefect duty that night. And he looked up. And he looked at Heyns. And he looked at me.
‘Anderson! Hedge!’ he said quite simply. Nothing more was needed.
I sat there. In shocked silence. I knew what ‘Hedge!’ meant alright, because I’d seen it happen to other boys.
‘Bloody hell!’ I thought. ‘Jesus Christ!’ And there was still half an hour of prep to go before the break, half an hour in which to contemplate the ensuing terror.
Life at school hadn’t been great anyway. When I’d arrived at Prince Edward at the impressionable age of 13, I’d been streamed academically according to how well I’d done at Routledge. And I’d done very well. I was a bright kid with a curiosity for life and an appetite for learning. There were six streams at Prince Edward: A, M, B, C, D, E and G. (There wasn’t an F as obviously that stood for ‘Fools’.) The M stream was for children who were not considered able enough to take their A levels; they were going to take what was known as Matriculation Exemption – Matric, for short – which got you into a South African university if you passed. I’d arrived at Prince Edward and was immediately put into Form 1A. While that was promising, the one thing that concerned me more than anything else was playing rugby. Rugby was my passion, far more important to me than any academic skill. So the burning question was: which team would I get put into?
One day, shortly after our arrival, we were called into a classroom and the teams were announced. To my horror, I was told I was going to be in the Under 13 ‘C’ team. ‘I don’t want to be in the C team,’ I thought, ‘I want to be in the A team. Why am I in the C team, for Heaven’s sake?’
I later discovered that we were graded in our sports positions according to how our older brothers had performed. So, if my brother had been a brilliant sportsman and had played for the Under 13 As, then when I moved up from junior school, I’d have automatically been put in the A team. As it was, John was talented at many things, but not sport: he played in the Cs and Ds. Whereas I, on the other hand, was a really good sportsman. At Routledge, I’d played for my first team cricket and rugby, and the first team in football. I was quite adept. I could catch, I could kick, I could run. As well as that, I boxed. And I dived. I did everything. So I’d come to Prince Edward thinking, ‘I’m going to play for the rugby A team, because I’m the best!’ – only to find myself in the C team.
‘Why am I in the C team?’ I thought. Answer: because my brother had been in the C team! Which I thought was the most unfair thing imaginable. But that was just the way they did it, though to me it was a gross injustice.
By the time I became a boarder at Prince Edward, my disillusionment was complete. Since I’d stopped being a day scholar, I’d been demoted a whole stream academically, because my marks had grown quite bad. I’d been so afraid of boarding, that in the eleven weeks leading up to my parents’ departure to England, I’d concentrated all my attention on changing my dayboy friends for the people I knew would be in the same boarding House. I thought. ‘If I can befriend a few of the South Afrikaans boarders in Jameson House, I’ll be okay.’ (I was terrified of having no friends. You always need friends.) So in my last term in Form 1A, I’d left the friends I already had, and I’d started to make friends with some other guys, who all happened to be in Form 2M and 2B. As a result, my learning went straight out of the window, and my grades got lower and lower. From coming 4th or 5th in the A stream during the first term, I ended up in the M stream. So by Form 2, not only was I a boarder, but I was also in the M stream, which meant that I couldn’t do A levels, which meant I couldn’t go to an English university or a university in Rhodesia, I would have to go to a South African university – as long as I passed my Matric. All that, plus being in the C team for rugby, meant I’d lost any interest in school.
So here I am. My parents are just about to go to England for a year, I’m in this ghastly house called Jameson which is populated by a bunch of Afrikaaners who can barely speak English. I’m in the M stream academically, the C team for Rugby, and now I’m for the hedge. Louis Heyns has got away with the whispering, but I’m the one destined for the hedge. And it wasn’t a poinsettia hedge with those nice red flowers, it was a hawthorn hedge with those bloody great spikes. I sat in prep and I waited for the break.
The break bell sounded, and it was as if I’d been sentenced and was about to be hanged. And one thing’s for sure, you can’t walk away from a hanging!
I felt sick. I knew that as I walked out of the prep room, there’d be a load of seniors waiting. Someone would’ve already spread the word: ‘In the break. On the hedge. Anderson.’ And all the seniors would’ve gone ‘Whoooh!’ Yes, I knew that I was the bait for these sharks, and that four or five seniors would grab all four of my limbs and say, ‘Sorry, mate,’ before swinging me high and chucking me on the hedge, while the other boys watched.
8pm. Out I walked.
There they were. Like I predicted. A bunch of seniors. I looked them straight in the eye and I tried to be bold. ‘What the heck! What does it matter? Bloody great hawthorn hedge? Sure, I’m cool.’ Inside I was thinking, ‘Christ Almighty! What if I go through the hedge? What happens then?’
One of the seniors came towards me and he grabbed me by the arm. He was a nice guy, a bit fey. (In retrospect, I think he might have been ‘queer’, though I’m not sure I’d have known that at the time.) ‘Sorry…’ he smiled apologetically, as another boy came round behind me and grabbed my other arm, so that now I was in a crucifix position. A third boy grabbed my left leg; a fourth guy grabbed my right leg. Then the fey senior shouted, ‘Up!’ and I was lifted high into the air. They carried me over to the hedge, and I twisted my neck to try and catch a glimpse of my destiny.
‘One…Two…Three!’ called the fey senior. And up I sailed – into the air. And down I flopped – onto the hedge.
Hawthorne. Spikes. Lots.
African hawthorn is like English hawthorn but the spike is probably a bit smaller: half an inch tapering to nothing, but very densely packed. I lay there, with my arms stretched as wide as could be, taking up as much space as possible, so that not one single part of my body was bearing too much weight. And there I was, just…sort of…suspended on the hedge. Every time I inhaled and exhaled, my body retracted. The more my body relaxed, the deeper I sank into the hedge. And the deeper I sank into the hedge, the deeper the spikes sunk into me. I tried even harder to suspend myself above the thorns, tensing all my muscles as tight as I possibly could be. But, there was no denying it, I was already well and truly spiked. And I knew that some of the spikes could go half an inch into me. Into my thighs, my buttocks, my back. Sure, I had shoes on, shorts on, stockings on, but I knew that the thorns would certainly go into my bum, into my shoulders, into my arms and armpits too…
I just lay like that on the hedge.
Boys came milling around, peering at me, then off they’d go again.
At last I heard the calls for the second half of prep: the break was over. ‘Wind up! Prep! Come on, everybody! Back inside!’ And everybody trooped inside.
But I was left on the hedge. I’d always seen the victims pulled out at the end of the break. But no one came to pull me out, I was just left there, suspended on the hedge.
Night was beginning to fall.
I looked up at the stars and thought, ‘Christ…’
Hours seemed to pass, and with every second the spikes sunk deeper.
Eventually I heard boys’ voices. A door opened and a thin stream of light cut across the ground.
‘Yeah, yeah, yeah…’
The next thing I knew, five boys were grabbing me and yanking me out of the hedge. I limped back into the prep room with the rest of the class looking at me. I sat down silently and tried to finish my prep. There were spikes in my legs and pieces of hedge in my hair.
That night in the dorm, a posse of friends set upon me with tweezers and fingernails and a pair of pliers. They carefully extracted the hawthorn hedge. But there were still bits of spike left in my flesh the next day.