The next few days pass in a blur.
Life in Sisulu House is a rollercoaster of emotion. First there’s the thrill of slipping the shield into the display case. Then there’s the suspense of waiting for the theft to be discovered. That doesn’t happen until Monday when Dr Hussein comes into work. Mrs Anderssen obviously locked up his office without looking too closely because she failed to notice that the shield was missing and that a great big Odes of Horace had been shoved into its place.
So we spend the entire weekend sweating.
Then we have to wait for the teachers to discover the shield’s new home. This takes them another day and a half because the Sisulu House display case is basically just a musty old cabinet in a room nobody ever bothers to go into.
“It’s a disgrace the way they’ve let this cabinet go to rack and ruin,” Lael says, with her hands on her hips and a disapproving glare on her face.
“That’s because it’s never had anything valuable in it before,” says Nosipho.
“Until now!” Yasmin giggles.
When the shield is finally discovered, Matron calls us all into the common room and gives us this huge big lecture about how disappointed she is in us, and how she never would have thought it of us, and that we’re all going to have our TV privileges revoked for a whole term if the culprits don’t come forward and confess at once.
Her words are harsh, and her tone is rough and impatient. But somehow I know that underneath it all, she’s proud of us.
When I run this past the other girls, only Nosipho agrees with me. Lael, Yasmin and Priya can’t hear past her angry words. I think it’s because Nosipho and I both have Xhosa grannies who lose it with us every now and then. We’ve learned to tell the difference between real anger and the kind they have to put on because all the other grownups expect it.
“Okay, I’m going to trust you on this,” Lael says when we all gather upstairs later. “I’ll go and talk to Matron now, and hope she doesn’t completely wig out when I tell her it was us.”
“You’d better do it soon,” I warn her. “I didn’t like the look in Sophie’s eye when Matron was shouting at us. She’s just waiting for the chance to tell on us. We don’t want Matron to think we’re only coming forward because Sophie spilled the beans.”
“True.” Lael rolls her shoulders like a boxer going into the ring. “I’ll go and get it over with now.”
You know, Lael is brilliant, she really is.
I’ve known her forever, and shouldn’t be all that surprised by anything she does anymore, but sometimes she impresses even me.
On Thursday morning we have a special assembly of the whole school. After morning prayers and announcements, Dr Hussein tells us that one of the Grade 10 learners is going to address us. I feel a little clutch of panic when Lael stands up and marches to
the front of the hall. She has told us absolutely nothing about what she’s been planning. Ever since coming back from talking to Matron, she would only smile and put a finger to her lips when we asked.
I spent last night making sure my family were up to speed with everything. After supper, I called my brothers together and told them what we’d done. They asked whether I was planning to call the folks and tell them too. When I said I was, they promised to send a nice wreath to my funeral. Which of course put me into a fantastic mood for phoning Chile.
Anyway, I did it. If Lael could walk into Matron’s office and confess, then I could call my parents long distance and do the same. My dad’s reaction was volcanic, as expected. I think if he’d been on the same continent as me, that wreath might have come in useful. He was all, like, if we felt so strongly about the Gumede Shield, why couldn’t we have gone through the proper channels? Why did we have to break school rules to do it? And basically, where did he go wrong as a father?
Honestly, you’d swear he’d never heard of anyone breaking the law for their beliefs.
Then I got Mom on the line and she was much more sane about everything. In fact, she sounded almost excited. First she wanted a blow-by-blow account of how we did the actual stealing. Then she wanted to email me a feminist manifesto that we could Prestik up onto the display cabinet “like Martin Luther”.
I asked if she meant that American Civil Rights dude from the 1960s but she just sighed. But like with Matron, I could hear the pride behind the exasperation. It’s funny – my dad is the one who went to prison on
Robben Island and everything, but my mom is the real outlaw at heart.
So even though my parents know all about it and are apparently not ready to disown me yet, I still have my heart in my mouth when Lael gets up on that stage.
A few minutes into her talk, I know that I needn’t have worried. Lael is totally in control of the situation. She starts off with a history of the Gumede Shield, going right back to its days as the Florence Nightingale Shield during the Crimean War.
Then she talks about how the shield saved the life of a Brentwood boy in the First World War by stopping a bullet that was heading for his heart. And how another Brentwood boy carried it with him when he marched in the June 16 protests in Soweto in 1976. She talks about how the shield was stolen once before and placed in Sisulu House. Then she surprises everyone by pulling out an email from Priya’s mom.
I turn to stare at Priya with a ‘what the heck?’ expression on my face. But she’s as mystified as I am. Goodness only knows when Lael wrote to Priya’s mom. I’m starting to realise that she must have been planning this speech for a very long time.
This is what the email says:
To whom it may concern,
I was a pupil at Brentwood College in the 1970s and 80s and it was common knowledge in those days that one of the headmasters – I don’t know which one – had made a promise that if the girls of Sisulu House ever managed to smuggle the shield into their display cabinet again, they could keep it. This
was more than just a rumour. It was well-known throughout the school.
“Brentwood College is a co-ed school,” Lael continues as she looks up from the letter. “And has been since 1966. There was a time when girls were treated like second-class citizens around here. Like guests who were barely tolerated in what was still regarded as a boys’ school. Those days are over. We now make up half of the student body and enjoy equal rights in every respect.
“We’re not trying to take the Gumede Shield away from Gumede House. We just want to share it with them. It’s an important part of Brentwood’s history, and it’s only fair that it should belong as much to the girls as to the boys.
“We, the Grade 10 boarders of Sisulu House, would like to make the following request – without prejudice of course.”
A ripple of laughter runs through the staff members sitting at the back of the hall.
I jab Nosipho in the ribs. “What does that mean?”
“I think it means without admitting that we’re guilty of anything.”
“Now that the Gumede Shield has mysteriously and inexplicably found its way into the Sisulu House display cabinet,” Lael goes on with a dead straight face, “we would like to request that it remain there for six months of every year. We would also like the cabinet to be moved to a more prominent position, and for it to be turned into
a proper trophy display case to compare with the one in Gumede House.
“If this request is not granted, there will be nothing for us to do but accept our disappointment. But it will only be a matter of time before some future generation of Sisulu House girls decides to test the promise made to them by that long-ago headmaster.”
Nosipho whistles softly. “She’s basically threatening them, isn’t she? She’s saying that if they don’t do what we ask, we’ll just keep on pinching the shield until they do.”
“Shh,” I whisper back. “Let’s see what Dr Hussein says.”
Lael sits down to some nervous applause from the students, and Dr Hussein takes the podium. He eyes us all sternly.
“The staff and governing body of Brentwood College unequivocally condemn the theft of the Gumede Shield, and are shocked at the breaking-and-entering that went into it. This kind of lawless behaviour is totally unacceptable on school grounds and will always be met with the severest penalties.”
My friends and I stare at each other with wide eyes.
“Severest penalties…” says Priya. “That sounds like expulsion, doesn’t it?”
“Just wait,” I whisper. “He’s not done yet.”
“In considering how to respond to this outrage,” Dr Hussein continues, “we took several factors into account. One was the fact that no damage was done to school property. We remain mystified as to how exactly the theft was accomplished, but are grateful that nothing was damaged or vandalised.
“We also have no evidence to suggest that the Gumede Shield was at any time removed from school property…”
He sweeps our section of the hall with an eagle eye, as we stare innocently back at him.
“As such, it remains an open question whether the shield can actually be regarded as stolen when it was never removed from the school. It might be more accurate to say that it has simply been moved.”
He looks down at his notes and lifts a hand to adjust his glasses. When he looks up again, there is a distinctly unfriendly expression on his face.
“There remains the question of what I do not hesitate to call blackmail. We are essentially being held to ransom by the feminist agenda of certain female members of the pupil body. The fact that several female members of staff have declared themselves in sympathy with this agenda is neither here nor there.”
“Hah!” I say triumphantly. “I told you Matron was secretly proud of us. And it sounds like she’s not the only one.”
“It’s a well-known fact that institutions targeted by blackmailers should never give in to them because that only encourages the perpetrators,” continues Dr Hussein. “However, we still need to deal with the promise that was allegedly made to the students of Sisulu House by a former headmaster of Brentwood College. I have spoken to a number of teachers and parents who were pupils at the school in the 1970s and 80s, and have been able to isolate the rumour to the headmastership – or perhaps I should say headmistressship – of one Eugenia Caxton, who headed up Brentwood from 1977 to 1981.
“It seems that this lady – a known eccentric – did indeed make some such promise after the shield was moved to Sisulu House once before. And much as I deplore her rashness, I feel myself bound to honour her promise. And therefore, after consultation with the student forum, the teaching staff, and the governing body of Brentwood College, I am happy to announce that the Gumede Shield will henceforth spend six months of every year in Sisulu House, starting immediately.”
This time there is nothing nervous or hesitant about the applause. The entire student body – and most of the teachers, as far as I can see – are screaming, whistling, stamping their feet and clapping their hands as hard as they can. The noise is bouncing off the rafters of the old hall and thundering along the wooden floors. If the whole place collapsed at this point, I wouldn’t be too surprised.
As the noise starts to die down, I feel something brush against my sleeve. I turn to see Lael slipping back into line beside me. A huge grin lights up my face, and I wrap my best friend in a hard hug.