MY PARENTS have to leave for Chile just before the start of term, so Aaron, Caleb and I get packed off to school a day early. Term starts on Wednesday, with an orientation day for new boarders on Tuesday. We arrive on Monday, when the boarding house is like a ghost town.
Lael has boarded before, so she’s only arriving on Tuesday. I won’t get to see another friendly face until Tuesday morning at the earliest. My parents are supposed to be rushing off to the airport, but they linger for ages, fussing over us and making sure we’ve got everything we need.
My mom introduces herself to the matron of Sisulu House and begs her to take extra good care of me. She’s a no-nonsense, motherly kind of woman. Just talking to her seems to make Mom feel better. Me too, if I’m honest.
It’s all quite emotional when we finally say goodbye to our parents. We’ve never really been away from them before. I won’t go into detail, but I’m pretty much a cried-out wreck by the time they leave.
As they drive off in the direction of Lanseria airport, where my dad’s Gulfstream jet is waiting to take them to Santiago, my brothers recover much faster than I do. Within minutes they’ve dried their tears (yes, they did shed a few, I saw them) and are racing off to the field behind Gumede House – the boys’ hostel – to play a two-man game of soccer.
“Don’t mind me!” I yell at their departing backs. “I’ll be just fine. Don’t give me another thought!”
Caleb turns and gives me a thumbs-up sign, but
Aaron’s gesture looks suspiciously like a middle finger.
This surprises a snort of laughter out of me and I start feeling a bit better.
I turn around and look up at Sisulu House, which is going to be my home for the next three months. Okay, it’s pretty, I’ll give you that. Built in a gracious mock-Tudor style with half-timbering and authentic turn-of-the-century period features, Sisulu House boasts some of the finest blah blah blah.
I got all of that out of the brochure Mom has been boring me with all holiday. It’s written in the kind of suck-uppy PR language that’s designed to make parents forget they’re basically sending their kids to the kennels.
But, yes, okay, it’s quite attractive. It’s in a very leafy area, so you almost feel like you’re in the country. And if
I lean out of my dorm window on the first floor, I can see
Hyde Park shopping centre, which is very reassuring for my psychological wellbeing.
And speaking of my dorm, I’d better check the place out. Mom unpacked my trunk while Matron gave me a lightning tour of Sisulu House, so I didn’t really notice much about it.
I trudge up the stairs and hesitate for a moment, not sure which way to turn. Oh yes, right. Then I stand at the entrance to the Grade 10 dormitory and take a proper look at it.
This could be worse, I’ll admit. This could be a lot worse.
It’s a big, sunny room, with six beds in separate little cubicles. We each have our own bedside cabinet and built-in cupboard. And, yes, the whole dormitory is slightly smaller than my bedroom at home, and the cupboard is barely big enough for my school uniform, never mind any of my other clothes. But still. It’s not bad at all.
Mom has already put my own duvet cover on the bed, a little bowl of flowers on the cabinet, and some family photos on the cupboard door. So my cubicle looks quite cosy and home-like. I can just about imagine myself sleeping here for the next three months.
The bit I’m struggling with is imagining five other girls sleeping in here as well.
One of them will be Lael, which is cool. We’ve been doing sleepovers at each others’ houses since we were little, so there’s no big adjustment there. But I have no idea who the other girls will be.
I have some time before lunch, so I wander aimlessly around the hostel, poking my nose into random rooms.
The bathrooms are fine, thank goodness. I’m relieved to see that the toilet cubicles all have doors on them, and so do the showers and baths. Showering and going to the loo are not group activities as far as I’m concerned. I had visions of having to deal with a line of showerheads, like on Prison Break on the Series channel.
The matric dormitories are up on the second floor.
Their studies are so nice and private, I catch myself wishing I could board when I’m in matric, just so I could have one. Then I remind myself that I have a much nicer and completely private room at home, and the feeling goes away.
I go down to the common room to wait for lunch. This is the one part of Sisulu House I know quite well from visiting Lael. It’s a big comfy room with lots of squashy
sofas, old armchairs and beanbags on the floor. There are TVs at both ends, and a tea-table with a big urn on it.
This is the only part of Sisulu House that boys are allowed into, and even then they have to sign a register to get this far.
I flop down in an armchair in front of the TV. I’m just reaching for the remote when something makes me turn around, and I realise that I’m not alone.
There’s a guy sitting on the other side of the room. He’s tucked away in a gloomy corner, which explains why I didn’t see him at first.
He’s about my age, and he’s wearing civvies like me. He’s also wearing his school cap indoors. And that’s one thing that gets the teachers’ panties in a bunch.
It’s not just the ordinary peak cap that everyone wears. It’s this cool retro-style flat cap with the school badge and motto printed on it. I wonder where he got it.
It feels a bit weird, me sitting on this side of the room, and him sitting on the other, so I paste a friendly smile on my face and move to a chair a bit closer.
“That’s nice,” I say, pointing at his cap. “Where did you get it? I’m sure they don’t sell them at McCullogh & Bothwell. Or did you have it specially made?
“So you’re here at last?” he barks, ignoring my question. “It’s about time. I’ve been sitting here for over twenty minutes and no one’s been in to empty the bins. And look at that mess over there.” He points to an empty soft-drink can and a crumpled sweet wrapper. “Clear that up and make it snappy.”
I gape at him in astonishment. Is this some kind of joke?
“Come on! Chop, chop.” He claps his hands together twice. “This room isn’t going to clean itself, you know.”
Oh, I do not believe this. He thinks I’m one of the cleaners. Just because I’m black. What a flipping cheek!
I know we’re living in South Africa, but in this day and age I do not expect to be mistaken for a cleaner inside my own school.
I’m on my feet, hands on hips, glaring down at him. “Who the heck do you think you are? I’m not a cleaner! I’m one of the students. I’m staying here in Sisulu House this term, which means I’ve got a lot more right to be here than you do.”
“Oh?” he says, relaxing back into the chair. “I thought you were one of the cleaners. So who’s going to tidy up this mess, then?”
“Ooh, I don’t know,” I say sarcastically. “How about one of the real cleaners? But, seriously, dude. Don’t speak to them like that. They don’t have to take that kind of rudeness from a kid, you know.”
He sighs, already bored with the subject.
“It’s so dull in here today. When is everyone else arriving?”
“Tomorrow, I guess. My brothers have already moved into Gumede House. They’re playing soccer down on the field. You should go and say hi to them.”
Okay, I admit I’m trying to get rid of him. I’d rather be alone in the common room than stuck here with some freaky little racist – however cute and well dressed he may be. But of course he doesn’t budge. He just yawns and stretches.
“I prefer it in here. I like watching the new girls arrive. Checking out the birds, you know.”
I don’t believe it. Who does this guy think he is? “Well, there won’t be any birds to check out until
tomorrow.” I say, making air quotes with my fingers.
“Matron told me they’re not expecting anyone else today. So I’m it for today.”
“Yes, but you’re Coloured. It doesn’t feel right to be checking you out.”
“Oh, my goodness, will you shut up?” I snap at him. “On what planet do you think I’d want you checking me out? You just keep your eyes to yourself – and your nasty remarks too. You’re going to be very unpopular around here if that’s how you speak to people. I think you must be the most racist person I’ve ever met. If you want to fit in at Brentwood College, you need to watch your mouth.”
“Fit in?” He laughs. “I’ve been here a lot longer than you have. I fit in just fine.”
I’m opening my mouth to blast him when I hear the very welcome sound of the lunch bell. It’s a big, old-fashioned iron bell with a long wooden handle. One of the kitchen staff rings it before the start of every meal.
“It’s lunchtime,” I say stiffly. “Are you coming?”
Another cat-like stretch. “Nah. I’m not hungry.” Well, thank goodness for that.
Tell us what you think: How would you have responded if someone had been as rude to you as the boy was to Trinity?