Selby has got a pear-shaped head and a greasy s-curl haircut. He seems to be our leader. Everything is started by him – even the teasing. It feels as if I’m always the joke around here.
“Your shoes look like loaves of bread,” he says, and they all start laughing and calling me ‘Albany’. He clearly doesn’t know how hard my brother worked to pay for these shoes.
Another boy, Simon, starts laughing again, even after everyone stops.
“Uhleka nton’ mf’ethu?” asks Wandile, wondering why Simon is the only one that’s laughing in the group.
“All this talk about bread reminds of how I stole three hundred rand at the bakery on Friday,” says Simon, with a look of satisfaction on his face.
“What did you do with the cash?” asks Selby, looking very interested.
“You know mos, shit went down last weekend. We drank from Friday til Sunday morning.”
Their conversation is carrying on non-stop around me. I have nothing to add to it. It feels as if this is something that’s always happening to me – being stuck for words. Being the one who can’t speak up for himself in a group. The one who is teased.
One of the older guys in the school walks by. “Ey niyanxila nina makwedin,” he says, reminding our little gang that as Grade 10s, we shouldn’t be so crazy about drinking.
I’m glad the guy walked past; he gave me time to think. I have a plan now. A plan that will make all of them respect me.
I pull Selby to the side. “Eksê mf’ethu, I have a plan to get some cash. I saw sewing machine parts. They’re probably from back in the day, when this school still had dressmaking classes. I want us to steal them and sell them.”
“Waarheid? – Truth?” Selby is curious to hear more about this nerd’s plan.
“Waarheid! – Truth!” I repeat. “I know some buyers who will give us good money for them.”
Selby has a look on his face I haven’t seen before. He looks proud of me. “OK,” he says. And I know he’s thinking, let’s see if this nerd can actually pull it off.
Now I’m really praying that this plan works.
This is the perfect time to put my plan into action. It’s break. Most of the kids are playing on the field on the other side of the block of classrooms. But there’s a problem. The room with the sewing machines is next to the computer room and there’s always a teacher in there. There’s a security camera mounted outside, pointing directly at the computer room.
Selby has a solution. He takes one of the long broomsticks that the cleaners left lying around and rams it against the camera until it faces the wrong way.
We rush towards the door. I push. But it’s locked. Selby pushes me to the side and gives the door one mighty kick. It opens immediately. It wasn’t locked – just jammed. I can’t even open a door, I chastise myself. I’m weak. Maybe I shouldn’t do this. Fuck it! I’ll never be man if I don’t.
We make our way across the room and head straight to the cupboards. There they are – the machine parts!
We grab only the parts we can hide in our school bags, or in our uniform. I’ve hidden one of the parts in my jacket. I’m pretty sure they won’t find it – it’s an extra-extra-large jacket. “You’ll grow into it,” is what I remember my brother stubbornly telling me when he bought it.
“We should go back to class,” Selby tells me.
“Why?” I ask. I’m convinced that the best idea is to jump the fence and head home.
“Stop asking me questions, I’ve done this before.”
We head to class.
“Don’t panic, but Mr Peterson is coming up behind us,” Selby suddenly whispers to me.
Before I can even answer, a voice calls out: “Mr Top-Five!”
No-one else but the principal calls me that so I immediately turn around (with the widest smile across my face of course). It is him.
“How are you today young man?”
“I’m very good, Sir” I say, clutching onto the machine part tighter and hoping he doesn’t ask me why I’m wearing a heavy jacket on a sunny day.
“I want you to meet Mzi,” the principal tells the man he’s walking with, as he points at me. “He’s the one I recommended for your university scholarship.”
In front of me stands a smiling man in a ten-thousand-rand suit. I stretch my hand out to greet this guy who looks like he’s a billionaire’s brother. The machine part falls out. Shit! I’m screwed!
“What’s going on here?” Principal Petersen barks at me.
I stutter. No words come out of my mouth.
“Dit was al sy plan, meneer! – This was all his plan, sir” explains Selby, quickly. He’s betraying me. I’ve never seen him panic like this.
“Mr Ebrahim,” the principal says, urgently, “if you don’t mind, could we continue our conversation later? I will call you as soon as I have fixed this situation.”
“I understand,” says Mr Ebrahim, looking at me with disappointment written all over his face. Then he walks towards where his car is parked outside Petersen’s office.
“You boys better come with me, right now!” Petersen orders, as he storms off in the direction of his office.
We drag our feet as we follow him. No words are exchanged. Selby looks like he knows exactly what’s coming. I seem to remember them calling his father about a thousand times to the school.
My brother’s going to kick my ass. “Mzimasi, boy, didn’t I tell you to focus on school and leave those stupid friends?” is the speech I expect.
On the way to Petersen’s office, Clinton sees me. Clinton is the guy my brother said I should be friends with. A guy who only talks about acing his next maths test and how hot a Porsche or Ferrari is. Never! I can’t be friends with Clinton, mna!
Petersen’s office door is closed but we can hear him inside, talking on the telephone. We wait outside. After what seems like forever he opens the door.
“That was the police. They are on their way,” he tells us.
My heart falls to my shoes.
“You will learn the hard way never to steal again,” Petersen tells us.
We stay there against the wall, waiting for the police to arrive.
All the kids in our class watch as the police officers load us into the van. I try to make an argument about my rights. I fail. Instead, a huge blow strikes the back of my head. Everything goes black.
When I come round we are in a police cell. One of the three officers present laughs and makes the ‘bad cop’ speech. I’ve watched enough movies to know the ‘good cop-bad cop’ game they like to play. Looks like these policemen have watched those movies too.
“Your principal wants us to go easy on you. He thinks we’re toy cops. But we don’t go around just scaring schoolboys thina. We beat up little criminals like you!”
He puts on weight-lifting gloves. The other undresses us.
I get a kick that almost shatters my ribs. I fall on my side and my head hits the hard and wet floor. My brain feels like it’s in a tumble drier. The same seems to be happening to Selby. The officer with the gloves grabs the back of my neck and pulls me up. But just when I begin to believe he is stopping the violence, he slaps my right eye shut.
The pain is pumping through my entire body. The only thing I hear now is Selby begging for mercy and blaming me for everything.
Wait! I hear another voice. I look up and see a fourth officer. He’s begging the others to stop. “These are kids, guys! Stop what you’re doing, please!” The ‘good’ cop.
They finally stop.
“You boys better get distinctions from now on or else I won’t stop these officers next time,” he says, as he pushes the other officers out.
A familiar voice in the distance is speaking to me. “I will count down from ten and when I reach one, you will wake up and remember everything you just told me.” It’s Doctor McNamara.
Tell us what you think: Why did Mzi suppress or ‘hide away’ this memory from his past?