I’ve got a new friend at school. He likes playing chess, like me, and today he came to my house. My dad was in a good mood, and sat with us, laughing as we complained about our teacher. “Listen to this,” he said. “There was this corporal who trained us, he was mean, he was mad. He set the machine gun fire and we had to leopard crawl below it for training. We did it once. Then he set it lower. We did it again. He set it even lower. My friend complained, but he screamed at him. He made him go first. He was killed. That was the first time I saw someone die.” I saw Kwezi’s eyes open wide.

Later, when I walked home with him, I asked him if he liked my dad’s story. “Ja,” he said. “You see, my dad was also in the war. He’s got scars on his leg and everything.”

Then I asked him – I couldn’t stop the words- “does he get nightmares?” Immediately I felt soft and skinless – I wished I hadn’t let the words out.

But Kwezi answered, “He does – and he screams sometimes in the night – does yours?” I think it was at that moment I decided Kwezi would be a perfect best friend. I had always worried that my dad would scream when a friend slept over. And now I had met someone who had a dad with the same problem. I could see he was pleased too.

“I know,” Kwezi said. “Let’s get our dads together. I’m sure they’ll have a lot to talk about.”

“Cool,” I said. ‘And don’t lets tell them about each other, dude – maybe they even remember each other, maybe one of them saved the other one’s life!” We laughed delightedly at the idea.

What fools we were.

We planned the braai carefully. His mom bought chicken and wors, and my dad bought chops and wors. I even made the salad. “Who are these people anyway,” my mother grumbled as she prepared her famous melktert, although I knew she liked Kwezi. ‘Well, his mom’s white, his dad’s black, and he’s caramel,” I said. My mom laughed. “You’re right, he does look sweet,” she said, and pinched my cheek.

I was pleased that my dad looked smart, because I’ve seen Kwezi’s dad twice and he was wearing a tie both times. He’s in government or something, he’s always at work. I was surprised though when I opened the door – he was wearing jeans, and carrying a shopping bag. “Hello, Dave,” he said. Behind him Sarah, Kwezi’s mom, was carrying a big canvas bag with lettuce sticking out the top, and then there was Kwezi, peering around them, grinning nervously.

My dad was at the fire at the back, burning old fat off the grid. He looked up as we joined him and introduced Kwezi’s parents. I smiled, and said to my dad, “Maybe you know him, dad, he was also in the war.”

My dad looked at John with new interest. “So where did you do your training?” He asked.

John’s face also opened up suddenly. “Tanzania, mainly.” he responded. “So you were part of MK? I’m surprised I don’t know your name – there weren’t that many whites involved.”

Suddenly, my father’s face changed – as if his face was were wiped clean, and redrawn by a different artist who specialised in those blank, horrified looks.

“You were in the SADF,” said John. He turned to me with a forced, crooked smile. “You’ve got it wrong, boy, we fought on opposite sides of the war.”

I didn’t understand. “But didn’t you both fight for South Africa?”

“There was more than one side in South Africa,” John said to me. “Part of it was a civil war, with South Africans against other South Africans.”

“And I was on the losing side,” my dad said to me dryly.

There was a stony silence.

“I would call it a little more than the losing side,” said John evenly.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“It wasn’t just the losing side, it was the wrong side. If your side won I wouldn’t have been able to marry my wife, if you had won our sons wouldn’t be at school together, and I would probably be your garden boy.”

“So, who were the terrorists?” I asked.

John looked at my father and then looked at me. “I suppose I was a terrorist,” he said, almost spitting out the word. “But we called ourselves freedom fighters.”

My dad looked up. “I didn’t choose to go the army you know. It wasn’t easy for us, either. I was seventeen. I didn’t want to go to jail for six years! And then in the army we were brainwashed, exploited. I was unlucky, I was sent to the border for nearly the whole two years – I was a reckie, I had to do things I didn’t want to do. And the people who sent me are still-”

“But you still tell your son about terrorists!” John’s voice was loud, almost shouting.

There was a deep silence around the fire. As if they could sense it, Sarah and my mom hurried out.

“What’s wrong?” asked my mom.

“Don’t worry, we’re not fighting,” said John, and then he gave a funny hard laugh. “Maybe we were fifteen years ago, but we’re not now.”

“Men!” said my mom to Sarah, trying to lighten the situation. But the atmosphere stayed weighted with their words. Our fathers hardly said anything. Sarah and my mother talked about the school, and the neighbourhood, and finally even recipes as the men sat in dark corners, far away from each other. And Kwezi and I hardly looked at each other. Eventually, straight after supper, before we had a chance to even offer my mom’s famous melktert sitting on the counter, they left. Kwezi and I had planned that he would sleep over, but neither of us mentioned it.

That night, my dad had one of his really bad nightmares. I lay in my bed, trying to get to sleep again, thinking about what John had said. Why did my dad do what he did? I had learned about apartheid at school, and how lucky we are that it’s gone. It felt so lonely to feel that my dad was on the wrong side. It was like he was somebody I didn’t know anymore. Somehow I had never thought what he fought for, what he was defending. For the first time as I heard his ragged breaths, I didn’t want to go to him, to stroke his forehead.