Children naturally take an interest in any newcomer, whether as object of their charity or as victim of their persecution. Thus even Fanie van den Bergh created a little hush of attention when he was brought into the classroom by the principal, Mr. Viljoen, and assigned a desk by Miss Jordaan in the front of the class, across the aisle from mine. On a first frankly exploratory stare, he seemed candidate for neither charity nor persecution — that is, he seemed just ordinary. He was very thin, but then so were many of the children in the class; he was poorly dressed in slightly grubby clothes, but again that was hardly noteworthy in Verkeerdespruit. He was wearing a pair of scuffed shoes, which did set him apart from the predominantly barefooted class, but that was understood as a concession to his first day at school. Verkeerdespruit people, my mother used to say, had to prove that they possessed shoes. I never wore shoes, not even on the last day of term when everybody else did.
In the course of the morning Miss Jordaan asked her new pupil a few questions, partly to make him feel at home and partly, I suppose, because she also felt a certain curiosity: she hadn't been in Verkeerdespruit long enough to have ceased hoping for an exception. Fanie certainly was not it: her questions elicited only the usual dour silence of ignorance or shyness or both. She and the twenty-five members of the Standards One and Two class settled down again to their routine, and Fanie van den Bergh took his unremarkable place in the unexacting primary educational system of the Orange Free State.
At first break what curiosity remained was soon satisfied: Fanie was willing to join in games ofkennetjie, which suggested an acceptable combination of conformity and defiance of authority;kennetjie, a somewhat rudimentary game in which the bat was a long stick and the ball was a short stick, was officially outlawed since Marius Venter had received a cut on his forehead while trying to field one of Louis van Niekerk's more vigorous efforts. Fanie was uncommunicative about his origins, though he admitted to coming from Ficksburg, which was neither near enough to make him one of us nor far enough to be exotic. He was nine years old, which was the standard age in our class, except for Tjaart Bothma, whose father had taken him out of school for a year because he had found a reference to evolution in our Nature Studies book. It was generally believed that Tjaart's father, who was known as Bobbejaan-Bakkies Bothma, Baboon-face Bothma, felt as strongly as he did about the theory of evolution because it accounted so unflatteringly for his own appearance; but we did not generally refer to baboons in Tjaart's company, because his year's advantage in age gave him a disproportionate advantage in size.
The only slightly unusual thing about Fanie was that he had neither brothers nor sisters: one-child families were not common in Verkeerdespruit in 1962. Although I myself was in fact an only child, this did not seem to require explanation, since I was used to our family being slightly different from the rest of the village. But Fanie was in every other respect so ordinary that even this slight deviation from the four-child norm of the time and place seemed an anomaly. His father was the new barman at Loubser's Hotel, replacing Schalk Redelinghuis, who, rumor ran, had drunk up all the profits. From this we deduced that his father was a man of sober habits, and Louis van Niekerk stated with knowing emphasis, "Then that's why he's an only child."
"Why?" I asked reluctantly, unwilling to give Louis an opening to show off his powers of deduction.
"Because his father's a barman, of course," he said smugly. "That means he comes home too late."
I wanted to ask too late for what, but since that was clearly what Louis van Niekerk wanted me to do, I simply said, "Oh," and pretended to take a thorn out of my foot.
So Fanie van den Bergh, having been explained and categorized, ceased to occupy our minds. Nobody was nasty to him, and some were friendly: those with no particular friend who thought that perhaps Fanie might be it, and others like myself who had been taught that one should be kind to strangers. I can't remember that I was ever given a reason for this precept, but I accepted it as I accepted that one should not wipe one's nose on one's sleeve or talk of kaffirs — a sign of our difference from the rest of Verkeerdespruit.
My father was the magistrate, and we lived in the secondbiggest house in Verkeerdespruit after the pastorie—the third-biggest in fact — but the biggest of all belonged to Dr. Mazwai in the location and thus did not count. Nor did the pastorie really, because that belonged to the church, which meant that we paid for it with the sixpences we put in the collection plate. So it was possible to believe that we owned the biggest house in Verkeerdespruit, and I believed it. Apart from this, my father was English-speaking, which was if not unique then relatively rare in Verkeerdespruit; my name, Simon, was supposed to be pronounced in the English way, though this was regarded as an affectation by my peers. My parents came from the Cape, which was bigger even than Bloemfontein and generally accepted to be considerably more advanced. As for Verkeerdespruit … Verkeerdespruit had no claims to the regard of the rest of the world. It featured in our school history book only as the home of a minor "friendly" native tribe — which meant that they had not put up any resistance to the occupation of their land by the Voortrekkers — and as the place where two Voortrekker leaders, having no enemy against which to unite, had quarreled with each other, causing one group to trek on in a huff to meet obliteration at the hands of a less docile indigenous community in Natal and leaving the other to settle what became, not very spectacularly, the white village of Verkeerdespruit. Even the name Verkeerdespruit, the wrong creek, had something depressed about it, as if the founders had recognized their mistake but lacked the initiative to do anything about it. The heroic group that had set off to annihilation elsewhere was commemorated annually in a lugubrious ceremony around the square of cement imprinted with the tracks of the ox wagon that had visited Verkeerdespruit during the centennial ox wagon trek of 1938. The square of cement also bore the distinct imprint of a high-heeled shoe, according to popular legend belonging to the mayor's wife, who had a drinking problem.
All in all, my ambitions were larger than my environment. I knew, in any case, that I was going to be sent to Free State College in Bloemfontein after Standard Five. My mother said that after a certain age you needed more from school than what she called The Basics; Verkeerdespruit, she said, was probably as Basic as you could get without severe mental deprivation. So in being nice to Fanie van den Bergh I was simply demonstrating a standard of behavior more exacting than that of the rest of Verkeerdespruit. I told my mother about the new boy, and she went to visit his mother, as she visited all newcomers to the village, partly as her social duty, partly in her capacity as secretary of the Oranje Vrouevereniging, or OVV, a women's charitable organization that looked after poor white people. She reported that the Van den Berghs were indeed very poor and that she would have to make regular visits, which she did not look forward to because Mrs. Van den Bergh talked incessantly and, though older than my mother, called her "Auntie."
Prompted, after all, to my own form of charity by my mother's news, I offered Fanie van den Bergh one of my sandwiches at break, but he declined — not very graciously, I thought. It was a white-bread sandwich, which was regarded as a delicacy, white flour not being subsidized like the brown flour that the poor people used. When I saw Fanie accepting a vetkoek from Louis van Niekerk, I concluded that he was not used to white bread and did not know that it was better for him than vetkoek. My mother did not make vetkoek.
In spite of this rebuff, I occasionally helped Fanie van den Bergh with his sums. He seemed more appreciative of this than of the sandwich, though he was satisfied to be given the answers and showed little interest in my explanations of how I had arrived at them. I couldn't help him with reading: explaining why a particular combination of marks means dog rather than cat was beyond my powers. It seemed to me that Fanie should be able to arrive at so simple a distinction without explanations. "Can't you tell the difference between cat and dog?" I'd ask in exasperation, and "No," he would reply stolidly.
"Then what's that?" I asked, pointing at Mrs. Maree's mongrel fortuitously trotting past the school fence. Mrs. Maree lived next to the school and regularly complained about some aspect of our behavior. Her dog, though, was friendly, and sometimes condescended to visit my six-month-old puppy, Dumbo.
"That's Skollie," he said.
"Yes, but what sort of thing is Skollie? A dog or a cat?" I added quickly, to narrow down the available categories.
"A dog, of course," he said, looking at me as if I were the moron.
"Then if you can recognize a dog when you see one, why can't you recognize the word when you see it?" I asked triumphantly.
He thought for a moment. "Because the word doesn't have a tail and ears," he said at last.
"But a cat also has a tail and ears," I pounced, delighted at having him play into my pedagogical strategy so obligingly; but he only said, "Not like a dog's." I heard later that he'd told Tjaart Bothma that I didn't know the difference between a cat and a dog, and I decided that Fanie van den Bergh was stupid. He himself seemed strangely unaware of this and went his way impassively, apparently unperturbed by his lack of prowess. Nor did Miss Jordaan try to bring home to him his hopeless state, as she did to some others in the class. This seemed unfair, since most of the chastised were in fact less hopeless than Fanie.
Having done my duty by Fanie van den Bergh, I was prepared to consign him to the obscurity appropriate to his gifts, and I stopped trying to teach him anything. I was still kind to him, of course, but there didn't seem to be anything much to be kind about. My mother unwittingly confirmed me in this conviction in her accounts of her visits to Fanie's mother.
"I don't know," she announced one evening after supper, "why we bother."
"Why we bother with what?" asked my father.
"Oh, with people who can't be helped, like Mrs. van de Bergh."
This interested me. "Why can't she be helped?"
"I don't think she wants to be helped. I took her that recipe book that we produced, the one with nutritious meals …"
"You mean Healthy Meals for Large Families?" my father smiled.
"Yes, and now she complains that it doesn't contain a recipe for vetkoek — I mean, vetkoek, the stuff is pure starch and fat, it's exactly the kind of thing we're trying to get these people to stop eating."
"Why does she want to make vetkoek?" I asked, pursuing a line of thought of my own.
"It seems her son has been nagging her to make it. I told her to tell him it's bad for him, but I don't think she believes me."
I nodded; so Fanie had after all preferred Louis's vetkoek to my mother's white bread.
"And besides," my mother continued, "she tells me she can't use the book because they haven't got a large family. She just doesn't see the point."
"And what is the point?" asked my father.
"Well, that the recipes are meant for people who are too poor to afford meat and eggs and things."
"Then why didn't you call it Healthy Meals for People Who Are Too Poor to Afford Meat and Eggs and Things?" my father asked.
"Oh really, John, that's not the point!" my mother laughed, and, in spite of her laugh, which I didn't understand, I could see what she meant. The point was that the Van den Berghs couldn't see the point.
So, unlike my mother, who kept trying to raise the Van den Bergh standard of living, I stopped bothering. Fanie van den Bergh took his place among the featureless objects of Verkeerdespruit and would have remained there had he not turned out to be, after all, exceptional.
This fact, startling in itself, was brought home to us in a sensational manner. We were mumbling and stumbling our way through Loud Reading — always a trial to me, who read ahead and then got impatient with the other children's halting progress. As a result my attention was at leisure to survey the rest of the class, most of them with their eyes fixed rigidly on the page in front of them, terrified lest they be called upon to read.
Fanie's attention seemed more fixed than most: if it had been possible to decipher a word by staring at it, he would have been a star reader. He gazed at his book with what I took to be a craving to understand; then suddenly, without any preliminary, he fell sideways off his desk and slumped on his back in the aisle. This was so unexpected that my categories of human behavior were taken completely by surprise. As I stared at him in a kind of horror of incomprehension, he went completely rigid, arching his back and clenching his fists. By now most of the rest of the class was watching, though Miss Jordaan, intent upon helping the fumbling reader of the moment, was unaware of anything untoward.
Somebody giggled at the back of the class. "Fanie! Get up!" I whispered, more to reassert my own sense of normality than because I thought it would have any effect. The effect was in fact extraordinary: Fanie started convulsing rhythmically, knocking his head against the floor. By the time Miss Jordaan reached him, foam was appearing at his mouth and half the class was hysterical.
"Shut up!" she snapped in passing at Jesserina Schoeman, who was more agitated than most, and shook her arm roughly. Jesserina gulped and shut up. Miss Jordaan knelt by the frantically undulating body of Fanie van den Bergh and seized his shoulders. "Fanie!" she shouted, and I could see that she was almost as terrified as we were. Then she found a category.
"He's having a fit," she announced.
The information calmed us immediately. We'd heard of fits. The horrible visitation had been named, explained, tamed in our minds. The only person unaffected by this exorcism was Fanie, who continued beating his head against the floor, his eyes and mouth clenched tight.
"He's going to swallow his tongue," declared Miss Jordaan, reawakening the dread of the bizarre in our minds. She seized his jaw. "Get me a ruler."
Mine was closest. Miss Jordaan grabbed it from my fumbling hand and started prizing open Fanie's rigid mouth with her left hand, holding the ruler in her right. She forced his teeth apart just far enough to get her fingers clamped tight between his jaws. She screamed and hit Fanie on the head with the ruler. Jesserina Schoeman also screamed, and Miss Jordaan hit her on the leg.
This served to calm both Miss Jordaan and Jesserina, but it had little effect on Fanie. Miss Jordaan set to work at forcing open his jaws with the ruler and managed to extricate her fingers. I noticed with fascination that they were bleeding. Miss Jordaan by now had the ruler lodged in Fanie's mouth, and she relaxed.
"Now at least he won't swallow his tongue," she said grimly, in a tone implying that by rights he should be left to swallow it and be damned. Reassured, we forgave Fanie for biting Miss Jordaan and watched him more dispassionately.
The fit lasted about five minutes. Then the convulsions stopped abruptly, and Fanie went limp, his eyes still shut. The ruler fell from his mouth with a clatter, and I retrieved it, examining with interest the tooth marks in the wood. "Let me see," whispered Annette Loubser, and the ruler made its way from hand to hand through the enthralled class, witness to the passion of Fanie's fit.
We carried Fanie to the principal's office, the clearinghouse of all crises, and Mr. Viljoen drove him home. Miss Jordaan, her fingers bandaged from the first-aid tin in the principal's office, slightly pale with pain and shock, explained the fit to us.
"Some people get fits like this because of a disease they have," she said. "They're not dangerous," (glancing briefly at her bandaged fingers) "but you must be careful not to give them a fright or anything, because that can bring on the fit."
"What will happen to Fanie?" I asked.
"He'll be all right soon," she said.
"Fanie van den Bergh had a fit today," I announced at lunch. To my disappointment my mother did not seem as interested as this piece of news merited.
"Yes, he's an epileptic," she said. "His mother told me."
"An epi …?"
"An epileptic. Somebody who gets fits."
"He bit Miss Jordaan," I added, determined to wring some sensation from the story after all. This was more successful.
"Why? Did she try to open his mouth?"
"She was trying to put a ruler in his mouth to stop him swallowing his tongue."
"Tsk," my mother disapproved, "that old superstition. She should have turned him on his side." My mother had been a nurse — "a qualified nurse," I always distinguished — before she married my father. "Tell her she's lucky he didn't bite off all her fingers." I wouldn't have thought of telling Miss Jordaan anything like that, but I was always secretly gratified by my mother's criticism of our teachers.
The next day Fanie van den Bergh was back at school, seeming none the worse for his fit. He was given more attention than he had had since his arrival, but he proved as taciturn on this subject as on all others. No, he couldn't remember anything, and no, he hadn't bitten Miss Jordaan on purpose, and no, he didn't think it happened when he got a fright. Armed with my mother's superior knowledge, in fact, I had more to tell them than Fanie.
"My mother says she shouldn't have tried to put a ruler in his mouth, she should have turned him on his side. He's an epileptic," I announced. I'd practiced the word before coming to school.
"What does your mother know?" challenged Louis van Niekerk. As a policeman's son, he felt obliged to support me in disputes involving legal matters but driven to oppose me when he thought I was exceeding my authority.
"She's a qualified nurse," I replied unanswerably, and offered Fanie van den Bergh an apricot jam sandwich. This time he accepted, though without saying thank you.
Fanie's fit soon passed into history. We resolved not to give Fanie a fright, but since few of us would normally have thought of doing so, this hardly changed our lives or Fanie's. There was a brief revival of interest when Miss Jordaan appeared without her bandage, and we all craned our necks to see the scars left by Fanie's teeth. These proved to be disappointingly faint, and I decided that she had been unnecessarily harsh in hitting Fanie with the ruler, especially when she had been bitten because of her own ignorance.
Fanie returned to his previous position of tolerated obscurity. He did, though, emerge momentarily from near invisibility one day when he turned up clutching a brown paper bag, shiny and translucent with grease.
"What have you got in there, Fanie?" Louis asked, though there was no mistaking the appearance of a bag of vetkoek.
"Vetkoek," Fanie said, half shyly, half proudly. "Would you like one?" And he took out of the bag the largest and most misshapen vetkoek I had ever seen. Mrs. van den Bergh was clearly still experimenting. I stifled a giggle, but Louis, ever direct, said, "Jissus, it looks like a cow pat. Here, let me taste," and he took the strange object and bit into it experimentally. "Tastes better than it looks," he pronounced doughily.
"There," said Fanie and extended a second vetkoek, even more fantastically shaped than the first, toward me. "A vetkoek."
"No, thank you," I said. "My mother says vetkoek is bad for you."
He stood with the vetkoek still extended in his hand, looking at it as if seeing it for the first time. Then he threw the spurned object over the school fence into the dusty street. Skollie trotted up, sniffed at it, and bore it off into Mrs. Maree's backyard. The next day at assembly the principal announced that Mrs. Maree had complained that we had been feeding her dog "rubbish" and that he had been violently ill on her lounge carpet. When I told my mother, she said that Mrs. Maree's lounge carpet was enough to make anybody violently ill without vetkoek.
About six months after Fanie’s fit there was a commotion during break. I had been standing on my own, whittling chunks off the corner-post of the school fence. The wood was reputed to make you — or your victim — sneeze if you ground it fine.
Suddenly everybody was running to a spot next to the boys' lavatories, even the girls who normally preserved a chaste distance from this male preserve. I assumed there was a fight taking place, though I hadn't heard the usual rallying cry of "Fight! Fight!" and ran to share the excitement. But instead of two belligerent boys giving each other "cash," the circle contained only a writhing Fanie van den Bergh, obviously in the throes of another fit. We Standard Ones and Twos felt superior to the rest of the school in having witnessed this before, and slightly disappointed that they too were now being admitted to the mystery of fits. Still, we were being looked to for guidance, even from the big children.
"What must we do?" asked Frikkie Steyn, a big Standard Fiver who had been elected head boy of the primary school because he could run faster than anybody else and who was now facing the first crisis of his leadership.
"Put your fingers in his mouth," suggested Louis van Niekerk, his malice aimed more against me than against Frikkie. He knew that I would resent having my mother's medical knowledge impugned, and he was right.
"No, don't!" I shouted, pushing forward. "Just turn him on his side."
Faced with the choice of either putting his fingers into the clenched and foaming mouth of Fanie van den Bergh or turning him on his side, Frikkie sensibly opted for the latter course. The effect appeared miraculous: Fanie relaxed immediately and lapsed into what seemed a deep sleep. Even I was impressed at the efficacy of my mother's remedy; the rest of the school was dumbfounded.
"You see," I shrugged, "it works."
"What must we do now?" asked Frikkie, and I realized that I had no idea. I had not pursued my mother's knowledge far enough. Reluctant, though, to relinquish the authority I had so unexpectedly gained, I bluffed it out.
"We must carry him indoors. He can't lie here," I improvised.
"Right, let's take him to the office," said Frikkie, assuming command again, and seized a leg. "You" — to me — "take the other leg, and you" — to two other boys including the discredited Louis van Niekerk — "each take an arm."
So the unconscious Fanie van den Bergh was ceremonially, almost processionally, carried to Mr. Viljoen's office and dumped on the floor. There was a sofa there expressly for occasions like this, but we didn't even consider putting Fanie on it: never a very clean child, he was now covered in the red earth of the playground. Mr. Viljoen was having tea in the staff room; while Jesserina Schoeman was dispatched to fetch him, Frikkie chased out everybody except the bearers. The expelled crowded around the door, perhaps hoping that Fanie would bite Mr. Viljoen.
Mr. Viljoen appeared, carrying his cup of tea, with Miss Jordaan in his wake. He hesitated and looked at her; she considerately relieved him of his cup, spilling some tea on Fanie's shirt; Mr. Viljoen kneeled next to Fanie.
"Fanie!" he said. "Wake up!"
To everybody's surprise, Fanie woke up. He looked blankly at Mr. Viljoen, who, slightly taken aback at the efficacy of his own authority, felt obliged to continue his ministrations.
"What happened, Fanie? Did you get a fright?"
Slowly Fanie van den Bergh's gaze shifted from Mr. Viljoen's face to the rest of us.
"What happened, Fanie?" Mr. Viljoen repeated. "Did you get a fright?"
Fanie's eyes flickered briefly at Mr. Viljoen, returned to Frikkie, on to Louis, without a sign of recognition or anything else, until they met my attentive regard. His eyes locked with mine. For a few seconds he seemed to be thinking. Then his dull face set into an expression of pure hatred.
"It was him," he said triumphantly, pointing at me. "He gave me a fright."