BESIDES LAEL and Sophie and me, there are three other girls in our dorm. Nosipho has been a boarder ever since the beginning of Grade 8, even though she lives right here in Illovo. Her mom is a single parent with a hectic fulltime job at Deloittes. She doesn’t have the time to drive Nosipho around in the afternoons, so she boards during the week and goes home on weekends.
Yasmin’s parents live in Durban, but her mom went to Brentwood College when she was a girl, and wanted her daughter to have the same experience. Priya also lives in Joburg, but she says her parents are hectic social climbers who want her to meet the “right” kind of friends at boarding-school.
I’ve known Lael, Sophie, Nosipho and Yasmin since primary school, and Priya since Grade 8, but I get the feeling you don’t really know someone until you’ve shared a room with them. Like I would never have guessed that Nosipho wears a Hannah Montana nightie that looks exactly like the one I chose for my seven-year-old cousin’s birthday last year.
And Yasmin is perched at the foot of her bed, cutting her toenails. She’s just letting the clippings fall onto the floor. Which is a bit disgusting, if you ask me, and a good reminder never to walk around without slippers on. Ever.
So, yes, this is all a bit different to the privacy I’m used to at home, but on the other hand I can’t imagine that it ever gets boring.
“So what do we do for fun around here?” I ask, running a brush through my hair as we all get ready for bed on Wednesday night. “Midnight swims in the lake? Kitchen raids? Attacks on Gumede House?” I’m feeling a bit restless, to tell the truth. It’s starting to feel as though Friday will never arrive.
“What lake?” says Lael. “You’ve been reading too much Spud, Trinity. We’re in the middle of Joburg, remember.”
“Okay, that’s true. But there must be something else we can do. Don’t all boarding-schools have traditions? You know, like stuff that everyone gets up to?”
The others look at each other in a head-scratching kind of way. After a while, Nosipho, who has been boarding the longest, says, “Well, there is this one thing…”
We all sit up and look at her. “What thing?”
Nosipho shakes her head. “Ag, it’s not even worth talking about because it’s completely impossible. It’s just one of those silly rumours. I don’t see how anyone could ever really have done it.”
“Done what?” we demand. “No, man. You’ll laugh.” “We won’t laugh. Just tell us.”
“Okay. Well … you know the Gumede Shield?”
We all nod. We know the Gumede Shield. It’s this super historical thing made of bronze and wood that all Brentwood students get told about in Grade 1. It was supposedly carried by a Brentwood boy in World War I. It was given to him by the Gumede House housemaster to bring him good luck when he went to war. Only it wasn’t called Gumede House in those days, but Jan Smuts House. Anyway, the legend is that the shield stopped a bullet or a shell or something that would have killed the Brentwood boy. You can still see the mark where it glanced off the bronze. They show it to parents when they do guided tours of the school, and everyone goes ooh and aah.
Then when the 1976 Soweto uprising happened, a Brentwood boy pinched the shield out of its display case and carried it with him when he joined the protest. That was back in the days when the school was still run by the Catholic Church. They had been letting a few black kids in for years, but this boy apparently thought it wasn’t fair that he was getting a good education while kids in the townships were being taught in Afrikaans. So he bunked off school and joined the protest.
It would have made the story even better if the shield had stopped a policeman’s bullet and saved his life too, but nothing like that happened. He just got caught smuggling it back into its display case, which is how the whole story came out. In those days they thought he’d done a terrible thing and almost expelled him, but now of course that boy is one of the heroes of the school.
It taught them a lesson, though. Ever since 1976, the Gumede Shield has been kept under lock and key in the headmaster’s office.
Anyway, the point is that yes, we all know about the Gumede Shield.
“So … what about it?” Lael asks, making rolling motions with her hands.
“Okay, you know how it was taken in 1976?” Nosipho goes on. We all nod again. “Well, the story goes that it was stolen again in the 1980s. Some kid took it out of the Gumede House display case and moved it to the Sisulu House display case. They say it was a girl, and that she was trying to make some kind of point about how the shield belonged to the whole school and not just to the boys.”
“Wow!” says Lael thoughtfully.
Yasmin once told us that girls used to be treated like second-class citizens in Brentwood. Her mom remembers when the girls had to fight to be recognised as equal members of the school. It’s not like that anymore, I’m happy to say.
“So, anyhow, now we come to the bit that I’m really not sure is true,” Nosipho says. “They say that if a Sisulu House girl ever succeeds in stealing the trophy again, the school will let it live for six months of the year in Sisulu House and the other six months in Gumede House, and…”
“And the last bit of inequality between girls and boys at Brentwood will finally be removed!” Lael interrupts.
Lael is a huge feminist and there’s a disturbingly fanatical look in her eye as she says this. I know that look well. It’s the same gleam she got when we were about ten years old and came across a pet-shop at Sandton City. She decided that it was cruel to keep birds in cages and decided to release them all there and then. Well, it was complete and utter mayhem. The owners ended up calling the cops. My mom nearly had a fit when she came looking for us. Things only got smoothed over when my dad arrived and started writing out cheques.
“Well, obviously, that’s impossible so we should just forget about it,” I say quickly. But Lael’s not even listening.
“You know, I never thought about it before, but it is discrimination that the shield should stay in Gumede House all year round,” she says. “It belongs to the girls just as much as to the boys. We should really split it. And if the only way to do that is to pinch it and put it in our display case, then that’s what we’re going to do.”
“Lael,” I say as though I’m trying to calm a mental patient. “It’s a nice idea, but it would never work. Remember at the beginning of the year when Dr Hussein gave my family a tour of Gumede House?”
“I got to see where the shield is kept. It’s locked in a display cabinet in his office.”
“A display cabinet,” I interrupt ruthlessly, “that has a brand-new alarm system installed in it. Dr Hussein was very proud of it and showed my dad the whole thing. Basically, it detects when anything gets removed from the cabinet and sends an alarm through to the security company. Plus!” I add, holding up a finger when she tries to speak again, “his office has this huge steel security gate on the door, which is kept locked at all times.”
“Are you finished now?” she asks when I finally wind down.
“I am if you’re ready to admit that stealing the shield would be impossible and insane.”
“I prefer the word challenging,” she says thoughtfully. “Lights out in two minutes, girls. We’ll talk about this again soon.”
The rest of the week creeps past. All I can think about is Friday afternoon and what Zach has in mind for us. I’ve even started dreaming about it. In last night’s dream, we sneaked out of school and went to watch a movie at Sandton City. Then we were having a picnic down at the lake. We were sitting under some willow trees, watching the sun go down.
I wonder why I’m so obsessed with Brentwood’s non-existent lake.
He probably has nothing more exciting in mind than hanging out for a while. Maybe he’ll buy me an ice-cream from the tuckshop, and we’ll just talk for a bit.
And then maybe he’ll take my hand in his, and lean over towards me, getting closer and closer, until…
No. Stop it, Trinity.
I take a few deep breaths and try to get a grip. I literally have not been able to think of anything else all week. If only this day would hurry up and finish.
It’s dead quiet in Sisulu House. Everyone seems to have something on this afternoon, including me. But I couldn’t face swimming practice, so I bunked off to have some time alone.
I wander down to the common room to spend some productive staring-out-the-window time. It’s usually empty at this time of the afternoon, so it’s a bit annoying to find that today of all days, it’s not. Then I see who it is and don’t feel quite so annoyed any more.
It’s the brown-haired, trendy-dresser guy. Also known as James Ellison. The one my brother warned me about. I haven’t laid eyes on him in weeks.
He smiles as I come in.
“Hi, stranger. Where’ve you been hiding yourself?”
“I haven’t been hiding at all,” I say. “You’re the one who hasn’t been around lately. I suppose you’ve found a better spot for girl-watching?”
“Sometimes I come in here because it’s quiet.”
“I know what you mean. Gumede House can be insane at times. The other day I went to visit my brothers, and the boys were playing fussball, pool and table tennis all at the same time in the common room. It was like a madhouse.”
“I hear you’ve been spending your time in the more rarefied atmosphere of the Postmatric Annexe lately,” he says, looking at me closely. “What’s that about?”
I giggle self-consciously. “It’s not about anything. I was just invited to watch TV with one of the postmatrics. I was back by half past eight, and nothing happened. End of story.”
“His name is Zach Morris and you’re meeting him again tomorrow.”
“Oh, for goodness sake. I suppose it’s all over the school by now. Why do people even care?”
“I don’t like him,” he announces. “Well I like him enough for both of us.” “He’s not good enough for you.”
I roll my eyes. “Who are you – my dad? Of course he’s good enough for me. The question is whether I’m good enough for him.”
He shifts restlessly in his chair. “Hasn’t he noticed that you’re Coloured?”
“You’re Coloured and he’s white. He must have noticed that?”
I take a deep breath. “Okay, first of all I consider myself black, or mixed-race if you have to be picky about it. And secondly, yes, of course he’s noticed. How could he not have?”
“And he doesn’t mind?”
I drop my head in my hands. This guy is unreal. It’s like talking to a wall.
“Let me put it this way,” I say at last. “First he asked me to watch TV with him, and now he’s asked me to hang out with him tomorrow afternoon. I have to assume this means he doesn’t have a problem with the colour of my skin.”
“I think you should write him a note saying you can’t meet him tomorrow.”
“And why would I do that?” “It would be best.”
“Right. I’ll just cancel my date with the hottest guy in school because you think it would be best. That’s totally going to happen. Oh, and by the way, I wouldn’t need to send him a note because I’ve got his BBM pin. He gave it to me without me even asking. That’s the kind of trusting guy he is.”
He flashes me a cocky grin. “We’ll see who’s right.”
I draw myself up and stalk out of the common room before I say something I might regret later.
I can’t believe I used to have a crush on this guy. Yes, I know I told my brother that I didn’t, but I actually kind of did. There’s something attractive about him, in spite of his weirdo attitudes. But it would be impossible to like anyone else at the same time as Zach. Zach is so unbelievably gorgeous, no one else compares.