As a child—skinny as a grasslands cheetah, freckled on my legs, arms, chest, stomach, and eyelids—I have simply no idea that experiences like the jack bank are meant for people like me. I am, after all, white South African. In my case, this means that I live a comfortable life in my parents’ three-bedroom house in a verdant, acacia-shaded staff village of a South African game park. Sausage trees stand in the clearing in front of our house. When I cycle to school, black pedestrians on the side of the road lower their heads, as if suddenly overcome by an intensification of gravity. In our own house, Sara, a Swazi woman, lives in a room in the back of our garden and gets paid to pick my clothes off the floor, make my bed in the morning, and clean and vacuum the house. Every night before I go to bed, Mommy and Daddy come into my room, hug me, and tell me that they love me, and this is how I think the world is meant to be—safe and happy, protected by inscrutable but comforting forces much larger than me.
Then I complete Standard Five, or seventh grade, and, since there is in the immediate area no high school for whites, it is time for me to go to boarding school. On a fine January summer day in the early 1980s, my parents drive me through tribal shantytowns, pristine eucalyptus plantations, and banana tree–covered hills to a farming town about an hour and a half from home. They deliver me to a complex of redbrick buildings surrounded by a tall wire fence, where they help me unpack my clothes, all with neat name tags sewn on by my grandmother. They shake hands with the head of the hostel, Mr. Van Der Merwe, and with our two dormitory prefects, John and Neville—both seventeen-year-old matrics, or twelfth graders. One thing I do know—it has been explained to me ad nauseam by my father and uncle—is that it is these two who will be entrusted with the responsibility of maintaining discipline.
“Whatever you do, don’t antagonize them,” my father has warned me. “They can make your life hell.”
It does not, however, take me long to break this rule. At 5:30 p.m., shower time for the boys’ hostel, John and Neville yell for us to undress, get our toiletry bags, and come downstairs in our towels. There, in a stark and unpainted bathroom, with sheer, rough cinder-block walls still smelling of cement dust and builder’s glue and hot white steam billowing, filling lungs, alcoves, and toilet stalls, John yells out: “STANDARD SIX! TOWELS OFF!”
Towels? Why would he want us to get rid of our towels? I don’t get it; I am too young to get it—my little blond head, perched on my thin neck, cannot wrestle meaning out of this. I look around me and see that several of the other boys have let their towels slip and are grinning at the rest of us, in that bashful way twelve-year-old boys have, as if to say, Hey, oukie, isn’t this weird?
“I SAID OFF!” John shouts. He himself is naked now.
We take off our towels. A few of the shyer boys fold their hands over their private parts—quiet, reverent, protective gestures reminiscent of supplicants’ doubling their hands—but most of us stand there, clumsy, open, and awkward.
“Hands on your heads!” John says then. “And jump up and down! HIGH!”
We do this, bouncing up and down, little jack-in-boxes. Our genitals flap in front of us like birds’ wings. Is this a joke? If it isn’t funny, why are we all laughing at ourselves, grinning and guffawing as John shouts “HIGHER!” and joining Neville in free-spirited merriment when a plump kid slips and falls on his back, until John yells, “STOP LAUGHING!”
Then, all of a sudden, I notice that John’s cock is hard, standing out in front of him at a forty-five degree angle, bright pink from the shower water, grotesque and otherworldly, like a crimson bromeliad, and yet vaguely erotic. I have never seen a mature male hard-on before. This is like a revelation of my own future. My penis becomes tumescent.
I meet John’s eyes. He has been looking directly at me. The expression on his face—knowing, wise to me—causes an icy terror to pool around my kidneys.
“Come here,” he says.
I stop jumping and step toward him. Stillness ripples through the room.
“What’s your name?”
“Glen Retief, sir.”
Nausea grips my throat. I look at the other boys, some of them staring, wide-eyed, others looking down and scrawling patterns with their toes on the humid concrete floor. At this moment, they all seem unreachable.
John puts his finger under his penis and lifts it.
“Do you want this?”
What is the right answer?
“No, sir,” I reply. Then, hesitating—perhaps I am insulting him? “Well, maybe, sir. I mean, I don’t know.”
Neville laughs, turns off his shower, and leaves. A few of my classmates snicker.
“Retief, didn’t anyone teach you it was rude to stare?” John asks. I do not reply.
John points toward an alcove to our right where, beneath a row of several white enamel basins, a cricket bat stands in the corner. “Bring it to me.
He hits me four times on the buttocks: four cracks so loud they echo off the windows and walls—ice breaking on some far Antarctic plain; a dark starless sky somewhere in the world forking out lightning. Initially, I don’t feel these blows. The shock is so severe that I just straighten up, stunned and nonplussed. Then my backside is being pressed onto a red-hot meat grill. There is nothing between me and pain; I become it; it overwhelms and defines me, snuffs out all other consciousness. When I come to, I am standing over the white enamel basin, running cold water and holding my buttocks with my wet hands.
“You took those jacks well, Retief,” John says. “That’s good.” He smiles. The transformation is almost magical: he is soft now, in his wrapped white towel, affectionate, boyish, all tension spent; he swings his cricket bat loosely—a child playing with his toy. “No hard feelings, oukie?”
I shake my head. And I mean it—there is no indignation or umbrage. Just confusion. Emptiness. Terror. A longing for my mother—warm, protective arms and the fresh, shampooed heat of her sun-dried hair. Worming around somewhere deep inside my brain, however: something new. A beam in a freshly built house, slipping an inch or two in response to four thundering tremors. Cracks appearing in mental walls; a chisel chipping into an untried foundation block. Years later, life will provide me with words for these feelings of inadequacy. Stockholm Syndrome. Battered Victims’ Disease. Internalized homophobia: the ineluctable sense, as I watch John acting so masculine and nonchalant, talking to one of the other Standard Sixes about cricket scores, that there is something wrong with me for having warranted this punishment—something linked, perhaps, to my lifelong sense of being different from the other boys.
No, there will never be any shortage of labels; but at core, these academic designations will always remain, for me, rather bloodless. They will dance around my mind, flimsy moth-shadows; from time to time they will make cameo appearances in my conceptual framework—handy epithets with which to classify and organize the experience. By they will never embody it. For that I must dig deeper into my recollections, into the sights and smells and tastes of them, the imagery, texture, and moods of John, his voice, his cricket bat, and, at the end of it all, his jack bank.
It happens both quickly and subtly, our defeat and terrorization: delicate as a first winter chill, sliding down from the crisp, tawny Highveld plains into those subtropical valleys; unexpected as icy, crystallized spiderwebs. At what moment, exactly, does it occur? On what precise sweltering afternoon—in the whirring racket of the overhead ceiling fans, as we stand around those metal lockers clutching our running shoes and chewing Dentyne Spearmint gum and listening to F. R. David songs on our Sony Walkmans—do we lose ourselves?
Or is it right at the beginning, on that first night, after I bend over for John in the showers? Surely not; surely, from this subtle summer evening filled with the din of crickets and tree frogs, I still remember a whole host of outrage and defiance, kids running up to me on the way back from supper and asking, Jislaaik, how’s your bum, and then saying, That really wasn’t too kuif, him hitting you like that just for looking at him? And later, when we get back to the dormitory, John, Neville, and Greg, a third prefect who has walked down with them, grab five Standard Sixes and cane them for walking past an empty Coke bottle without picking it up—they make the juniors bend over beds, clutching the front metal rims with pale, skinny fingers. Surely here I remember an older boy, more physically developed than the rest of us, telling John, “But sir, this is unfair. We didn’t leave that bottle on the stairway!”
“DON’T YOU FRICKING ARGUE WITH ME, SMITH!” John explodes when he hears this. He puffs and heaves. His hands tremble. “I FRICKING WARNED YOU THAT IT WAS ALL OF YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO KEEP THIS PLACE CLEAN!” He is running some kind of internal marathon against himself; his eyes are hard, his pupils narrow and focused. He smells of sweat, mixed with the pungent, acidic odor of Clearasil; at this moment he simply terrifies me, seems monstrous, inhuman, enormous.
“Fuck you, boy,” says Greg to the Standard Six and shoves him down on the bed. He holds the boy’s head and shoulders still while John swings the cricket bat six times onto his arse so hard the blows clap like pistol shots. When Greg is done, the boy remains lying still on the bed, quiet, a corpse, until struggling up, spider-like, all arms, legs, and elbows.
“Fricking wastes of white skin,” John says now, looking at all of us. He shrugs and smiles. Again his tension seems to be gone; when he grins at us his blue eyes light up. He bends back and stretches out both arms. My heart, though, skips and thuds in my chest. Is it then that some obsequious survive-at-all-costs evolutionary response arises in the firing of my synapses?
Or what about this moment, from the end of the first week of school? In that week we have been assigned skivvy masters: seventeen-year-old matrics for whom we must play black South Africans, making their beds in the morning, polishing their shoes, and taking their clothes to the laundry room, where Swazi and Shangani maids will launder, iron, and fold them. Also that week we have endured hazing rituals and pranks: an evening concert in the school hall, where we each had to step onstage and put on a stand-up comic routine; a day in the hostel when we had to wear signs around our necks saying, i’m a worm. We have been beaten perhaps once a day on average, on our buttocks with the cricket bat and on our fingertips with a hardboard square.
Perhaps, after a full week of this, I have had enough. Perhaps within me some childhood notion of entitlement still struggles to stay alive—some idea that this is all wrong and unreasonable, and that I have the right to be treated the way my parents and teachers have always treated me. At any rate, that Thursday morning, there is a clash between the instructions I receive from Mrs. Eliot, my math teacher, to stay at home on Thursday night and study hard for an important placement test, and those I get from John, to attend an orientation dance at the school hall. “Only poofters stay at home during a skoffel, Retief,” John says to me when I share with him my dilemma.
I am indignant. Didn’t the assistant principal himself, this very morning after breakfast, say that the dance was voluntary? Since when does John make every rule and policy? Righteous outrage bubbles up in me; it befuddles and intoxicates me, and before I can really think about what I am doing I cross the grassy courtyard, turn left at the entrance to the main hostel, and knock at the front door of Mr. Ballinger, the teacher on duty.
The door opens. “Yes?” says Ballinger, blinking at me from under thick reddish-gray eyebrows. I notice that he is a short, slender man; among the students he has a reputation for being tough—people say that in the Rhodesian bush war he hunted terrorists in the Chimanimani mountains.
Now, however, he shows no sign of harshness as he listens to my predicament. I have always been a top student, I explain to him. My parents told me before I left that I had to keep up my marks if I wanted to go to university, and what am I supposed to do if Mrs. Eliot schedules her test on Friday?
“Don’t worry, my friend,” Mr. Ballinger says. He rumples my hair and smiles. “You’re obviously a good kid. I’ll have a word with John. I’m sure this is all just a misunderstanding.” His voice is so warm, gentle, and reassuring, his touch so kind and affectionate, that my eyes mist over and I turn away so he won’t see how much of a sissy I am.
An hour or so after lights out that evening, I wake from queasy, unsettled sleep to find that somebody has pulled my sheets from the bed. I reach down to pull them up again. Then I see him: John standing next to me, in a parallelogram of moonlight, holding a pillow slip filled with something bulky and uneven. He laughs. He seems crazed and unearthly; his sneering face and broad toothy grin have something nightmarish and hyena-like about them, as if I am still half-dreaming.
“You little snitch,” John says. He begins to beat me, bam, bam, on my naked back. Strangely, despite the force of the wallops, none of them really sting. I think: Why is he beating me with this instead of the cricket bat? This is not a real hiding. John laughs again.
“Ha, ha, you are so funny, Retief. You thought you could go over my head to Ballinger. Yissis! Ha!” Some of the Standard Sixes on the surrounding beds are lifting up their heads. Then he stops, and I realize my back is wet. It’s blood. I jump up to stop it getting onto the white sheets.
“Go back to sleep!” John shouts to a neighbor who is sitting up and staring at me, transfixed. He wallops the boy on the legs with the pillow slip, but something goes wrong and about half the contents fly and clatter out: athletics spikes, their hard steel barbs sticking out, bright metal thorn clusters.
“Pick them up!” he yells at the Standard Six.
Later, I sit in the downstairs bathroom trying to stanch the blood with rolled-up bits of toilet paper, the way my father does with shaving cuts. John appears in the doorway, the sweat on his pale chest glistening in the moonlight, his white pajama pants wan and luminous in the darkness.
“Sorry if I got carried away, Retief,” he says. He enters the bathroom. “It’s just—snitching is the worst thing anyone can do in boarding school. Everybody will hate you for it. You know that, don’t you?” I nod, and right then, sitting in front of him on that wooden bench in the shadows with the sound of the water trickling into the septic tanks, it seems to me that I do know it. I have always recognized this; I don’t have any idea why I forgot it and did something so stupid as to talk to Ballinger. He is right: I am a sissy. “I agree with Ballinger, though—you’re not bad.” He hugs me around the shoulders. Some of the bits of bloody toilet roll fall off. I bend down, pick them up, and stick them on again. “You’re going to be okay,” John continues. “I was just like you. But then I got better.” And I believe him and want to get better, just like he did.
Is my surrender an accumulation—a piling-up of small incidents of deliberate blindness, like the time I walk past John’s room en route to chess club? A clump of Standard Sixes stands at John’s room entrance that day, looking in and smiling. Curious, I slow down and lean my head just enough to catch a glimpse; naked, a twelve-year-old, who has chatted to me in line at the dining hall, stands holding back his foreskin in front of John and Greg, while John brings closer the stripped forked end of a copper electrical wire hooked up to an old crank telephone. I do not hesitate. I stroll forward as if I have seen nothing; I block out the yelp of pain and the concomitant laughter, reaching me on the downstairs pathway heading for the main campus classrooms. I have blocked out other stories, much like this one: about the guy in the bed next to me who had his hand taped to his penis and then had to knock on every door in the matric passage; about the kid whom John and Greg handed a pillow slip lined with Vaseline and Tabasco sauce and ordered to demonstrate the sexual act. Is this the essence of victimhood, its sickly core: when you refuse to look at reality because it has become too embarrassing and painful?
Or perhaps I am still on the wrong track here. Perhaps the key to my acquiescence to that great cycle of apartheid violence—the apparatus whereby white boys are bullied when they are young, so that later they will know how to beat blacks into submission—does not lie in John, with his bandy legs, khaki uniform, cock-shock machines, and athletics spikes. Perhaps it lies with my companions, those other skinny, freckled twelve-year-olds kept away from even phoning or writing to parents by weekend athletics meetings, curfews, and impossibly long lines of seniors at the downstairs call box. Sometime during those ten weeks, we stop trusting each other. Sometime we become vicious and feral; at some point we start proclaiming, half in jest and half in seriousness—“Him!”—when John asks who is making noise or giggling in the shadows. Is this the crux of psychological submission, when forty boys, with numbers on their sides, abandon each other’s wellbeing for the sake of short-term survival and allow two seventeen-year-olds with cricket bats to dominate them?
One evening, toward the end of John’s tenure as our dormitory prefect, an announcement comes just after lights-out: “Special bog meeting in the matric passage!” There, as we stand in our boxer shorts and pajamas in the “bogs” or bathrooms, Greg explains to us that someone has been complaining to their parents about the prefects. They have a suspect. Once a rat, always a rat—this much is clear. He looks right at me.
“Not me,” I blurt out, quickly—too quickly. Terror clutches my throat. “I think—I might have heard something on the phone.”
Andre, a short, skinny, blond, slightly effeminate boy, is my friend, and he is the only Standard Six who gets up at 5:30 a.m. to raise his parents out of bed. Just today, John was making fun of him for being such a Mommy’s boy. My lie is brilliant and inspired; he is the ideal suspect, all the more so because if I, his pal, am willing to finger him, then no possible doubts can remain of his guilt. The matrics, a wild dog pack, rip off his striped white pajama bottoms so his tiny genitalia are exposed to the light. They tie his hands behind his back with rope and blindfold him with a handkerchief. They bring a desk into the bathroom, position it below the lintel of the shower entrance, and lift him onto it. He shivers with fear, but makes no sound.
“LAUGH!” bellows one of the matrics. We do as he says, a forced and artificial ha ha ha until we get into the spirit of things and begin to giggle at our own amusement. We are still laughing when the matrics bring a white sheet and tie a noose around Andre’s neck. They string this noose to the lintel, kick out the desk and then catch him rugby-style. We roar with gusto—what a hilarious trick—and even more so when we realize Andre has urinated all over himself and the bathroom floor.
It is a year or two before Andre conducts a friendly conversation with me again. It is still several weeks before I finally call my own parents on a mild spring Saturday and tell them enough, in whispered tones, to prompt them to make, without informing me, a trip into the assistant principal’s office, where they threaten him with a lawsuit. It is several weeks until that warm Tuesday afternoon when we come home from classes and find that John’s stuff is missing and are told that John has been transferred, in disgrace, to the matric passage; instead Patrick, the calm, reasonable head boy, has moved in to take care of us.
Years later, when I am seventeen-years-old and a prefect myself, I will bend a junior over in front of me and clobber him with a cricket bat as hard as I can. He will bite his lip, let out a moan, and then, on the second or third stroke, with the mad breathless heart-thudding rush of adrenaline and physical power all over me, I will knock him so far forward that his head hits the shelf of the nearby bookcase. I will halt the hiding and apologize to him; however, afterward, in my nightmares, my face, hands, and body will all smell of Clearasil; lemon-vinegar stomach acids will surge up into my mouth. Even the next mornings’ oaths—that I will never let myself become like John, that I will flee the country and never fight in a war and never again bully another human being—are unable to wash away my contamination.
He is waiting for us when we get back from study hall, on that last night we spend together: a forlorn figure in white T-shirt and black boxer shorts sitting at the edge of a blue-and-white-checkered bed. “Meeting, Standard Six,” he says softly, as we file in; the weary sadness cloaks him. Something is wrong. He has never been like this: loose, flaccid, exhausted. Our stomachs tighten.
“I’m not scared of him,” my father had told me three days earlier, at the other end of the crackling country phone line in the predawn gloom of the downstairs lobby. In a more muted tone, as if he were facing away from the receiver, he added: “I think it’s time to do something about this, darling.” I shivered in the cool spring morning, pleaded with him and my mother to not do anything that would make the prefects angry, and then hung up the receiver when I heard shoes clacking on the upstairs floor. Then, today after lunch, the assistant principal again asked all the matrics to stay behind in the dining room. Indistinguishable fragments of his booming voice thundered down to the dormitory across the lawns and flower beds—a distant rainstorm. Later that afternoon, Neville got summoned to the assistant principal’s office; then, later still, after athletics practice, John, prompting more chattering and speculation among the Standard Sixes. What was happening? Were John and Neville in trouble?
“I have some bad news for you,” John says to us now. Despite his weariness, his voice does not waver; I hear a note of wounded bravado creeping into it, a vague rage that condenses in his syllables and hardens his vowels, consonants, and phonemes. My heart speeds up. “Sorry to say,” he continues, “but some people have apparently been complaining to their parents about the way Neville and I have been treating you.”
A murmur of outrage rises up among the Standard Sixes, the way it always does, nowadays, among the forty of us, whenever John talks about sissies, dooses (cunts), poofters, and rats—all the people who cause the matrics to lose respect for us as a group. “What the fuck,” says one boy. “Bloody snitches,” says another. Are they putting on masks? Or have John’s ideas by now so thoroughly permeated their consciousnesses that they have adopted them as their own?
“That’s not the way Dome sees it,” John says. “Dome says—he thinks—” His voice acquires a throttled quality, and he looks down at the floor. Then he seems to pull himself together. “Dome thinks I’ve been a bully and a really bad prefect. He told Neville and me that we’re not to lay a hand on any of you for any reason. He says if he hears of anything like this again, I’ll have to take the prefect braid off my blazer and move back into a normal room in the matric passage.”
Is he lying as he says this? Has he already been told that he has to move out, and is this all some perverted con trick to gain one last victory over us? Later, it will be hard to fit together the bits, pieces, and possibilities; now, sitting under the cold white fluorescent lights, nobody doubts him.
“What’s going to happen, sir?”
“Oh, detentions,” says John. “Dome’s orders. A full afternoon’s detention with me for minor offences, instead of finger jacks. Three afternoons for big things, instead of a normal hiding.”
Stunned outrage building among us Standard Sixes. A restless, confused fury, first at the unfamiliar, presented to us like this so brutally, and second at the draconian harshness of this idea—so many detentions? We will be spending our lives in the dormitory, confined to our beds.
“That’s unfair,” says one boy. “Dome’s fricking—nuts!”
“I hate this,” says another. “It’s much worse than jacks, I say.”
“Still,” John says, sighing, “that’s the way it’s got to be. Unless—” He pauses and frowns. Is this where a new thought crosses his mind? “Unless—unless you really feel strongly about this.”
Feel strongly? Hell, yes, we feel strongly! What does he think, that we want to spend hours in the dormitory looking at the ceiling?
“Sir, jacks are much better!”
“We should have jacks!”
“Well,” John says. He stops and ponders here, weighs up options. “I wonder . . . come to think of it, Dome couldn’t really object if you chose to be jacked, could he?”
He is still deadpan, nonchalant. Happy, even; he is starting to smile; he is getting some of the old boyish spark back in him, the wild, anarchic springiness.
“No, he couldn’t,” someone says.
“It’d be our choice,” says another.
“Yes, that’s what I think we should do,” says John. “How about if you do something wrong, you choose between jacks or detention. If you choose jacks, you’ll have to sign something, though—a release, in case Dome blows a gasket. No way Dome can argue if you sign a fricking waiver.”
Waiver: as if this seventeen-year-old cricketer and trumpeter, blue-eyed, knock-kneed and scrawny, has already stepped into the world of law and finance.
“Would you like that?”
“Yes!” we roar.
“Actually,” John says then. “How about—” He pauses, raises his eyebrows, looks out the back window toward the zinc roofing over the walkway. How long does he wait, thinking, or pretending to think? “How about if I just give you your jacks ahead of time? We could keep a record of them—a kind of jack bank. You could make deposits into an account. When you do something wrong, we could deduct from that. No long detentions.” Apparently as an afterthought, he adds: “I could even pay you interest, just to reward you for your bravery. Two jacks tonight, and you get three jacks deposited in the jack bank. Four, and you get six of the best, valid from me or Neville.”
More mussitation and discussion. Opinions seem to be divided on this one. This, it must be said, goes a good step or two beyond jacks instead of detentions; this goes into the realms of hypothesis and possibility, of probable and improbable outcomes. Some of the boys, however, immediately regard it as a good deal.
“It’s almost guaranteed we’ll do something wrong,” says one. “Look how often we get jacks already, man! I’ll have used up my deposits by the weekend.”
Others of us are not so sure.
“Who says?” I point out. “You might never do anything wrong.”
John has a notebook handy—a soft-covered accountancy one, with a dense grid of blue lines and a red margin. Bookkeeping is one of his six matriculation subjects; while we deliberate in the dormitory he sits at his desk ruling lines across the page to create accounts for each of us. All he intersperses in our conversation is the occasional reminder: “Remember, Standard Six. This is completely voluntary. I don’t want anyone putting pressure on anyone else.”
At last Rodney, a boy a year or so older than us, volunteers to take four jacks. John shows him where to sign in the brown notebook: right in the column that says voluntary. There are three more columns in the book: one neatly labeled jacks; the next, interest accrued; and the third, offset to the right, running total.
Rodney, wearing the checkered boxers in which he sleeps, bends over in front of us. In the time that we have been ruminating about the jack bank, most of us have got changed into our nightclothes. John whacks him four times, hard, with the cricket bat. Rodney’s face contorts with the pain, but then when the hiding is done, he stands up, rubs his buttocks, and laughs.
“Six of the best!” he whoops, high-fiving two of his friends. John laughs, too. “Pretty kuif,” he says. “Good job.”
Next a boy named Sven volunteers for four. Then Graham. Then a blond banana farmer, named Anton, for six—he gets a total credit of nine in the jack bank. John goes into his room and gets one of his medals. He drapes it around Anton’s neck and raises Anton’s fist.
Now a competition ensues. Rodney makes a second four-jack deposit, to make his total twelve, so that he can get the medal. Ten p.m. rolls around, and the lights get turned out. In the dark, though, more boys, caught up in the excitement, ask to make deposits. People jump up and down. They giggle and laugh. I get into bed. From the front of the dormitory, as I try to doze off, snatches of conversation mingle with the crash of the cricket bat: trees splitting in a summer berg wind.
At some point Neville returns. Through my groggy half-sleep I hear both prefects’ voices raised in argument. Neville says “Dome” several times, and “prefect badge”; John replies with “joke,” “fun,” and “voluntary.” Neville must leave again, because silence descends. I fall back to sleep; do I imagine I hear stray dogs barking on the hushed, neighboring streets? Then I am awake again, and John is right next to me, jacking my neighbor, Jacques. Whack! The cricket bat lands on blue pajamas with thin black stripes. Jacques moans, straightens up. Yissis! John laughs at him. Come on, Jacques! He jacks Jacques again. And again. And then some more: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight times. How many blows does Jacques take in total? I do not count, but at the very end Jacques lets out a choking sound, like an animal being strangled, and he falls down on his bed. The boys cheer.
“Three cheers for the champion!” John says. Then he spots me. “Do you want to deposit anything, Retief?”
“Come on,” says Martin, a boy who sits with me sometimes in the storm gutters at recess, sharing his Chelsea bun and potato chips and complaining about how John is such a “doos.” “Don’t be a sissy. They’re not as bad as real jacks.”
Am I the last holdout? Diagonally across from me, one boy is pestering another to volunteer for at least two, the minimum to qualify for an interest payment; on the other side of the row of lockers, several other boys are trying to persuade someone to take as many as he can.
“Who’s all put jacks in the bank?” I mumble.
John stands next to my bed and leans both his foot and the cricket bat against it. He does not answer my question. For a moment he seems lost in reflection. He says, with a hint of sadness: “Ja, Retief, hey. You and I—we’ve come a long way.” The tiredness seems to have descended on him again; he rests a hand on my shoulder, just like my father does at home when he is tucking me into bed. “You’re not the same person you were when you came in here.” It’s then that my heart stops. This gentleness has a cause: he knows.
“Come on, Retief. Are you sure you don’t want to make a deposit? Just because I like you, I’ll give one-to-one as an interest rate.”
Jacques offers up a howl of protest from the neighboring bed, but John hushes him with a finger on the lips. Now the dormitory quiets. A muted drama is unfolding. John really wants to beat me tonight. They can sense this. I can, too. Have the last eight weeks been building to this—the hiding in the shower, the pillow slip with athletics spikes, the awkward embrace in the bathroom, and now, finally, my ratting on John? I don’t want John to give me a hiding. I just want him to leave me alone and let me sleep. Yet something wild and magnetic is also drawing me toward John, something crazy, primitive, and self-destructive. Show him that you’re worthy.
“Three for two,” John says then. “Four jacks, and you’ll have only two less than your friend Jacques here.”
“Retief!” yells Jacques. “You’re such an idiot! Why wouldn’t you do it?”
“Retief!” echo the others. “Don’t be a doos!”
Still I resist. It’s a standoff: perhaps one minute, perhaps a minute and a half, me with the blanket up under my chin and my eyes focused vacantly on John’s white T-shirt as I quietly shake my head, John asking me if I am sure about this, me saying yes. The others keep shouting for me to do it. But at last John squeezes my shoulder and lets go.
“It’s okay, Retief.” He sighs. “We’re both all right, you know. Nothing wrong with us. We’re going to be just fine.”
He gets up, apparently finished with me, but now his words—something about the concepts of all right and fine—have unlocked something desperate in me. I still cannot understand this—I am, after all, still several years away from reading up on the word homosexual in the encyclopedia, let alone from linking it to the idea of nothing wrong. I am further still from piecing together the flux of emotional currents in this interaction: the gay seventeen-year-old, filled with both love and hatred for the twelve-year-old who so reminds him of himself; the desire to bash out of me the sexual orientation that fills him with such fear and disgust. All I know then, in that dormitory, is that some mysterious umbilical cord links me to John, and that this somehow makes it blindingly imperative that, right now, I win his approval. The boys all cheer. “Lekker, Retief!” they shout, when I throw off the bedclothes and stand up. Rodney hands John the exercise book, opened to the page with my account.
“How many, Retief?” Rodney asks me.
I pause and think. “Six,” I am about to say, thinking that this will get me the medal, plus enough jacks stored up to keep me safe for several weeks; but then I remember what six jacks feel like, and my cowardice gets the better of me. “Four.”
“Four,” John repeats. He points at my bed. I bend over the mattress with my hands clutching at the far metal rim. John pulls down my boxer shorts.
“Since you’re getting so much credit, this hiding should be kaalgat, don’t you think, guys?” he asks the others, and they nod.
One. Two. Three. Four. As always, the hiding is excruciating. My pelvic bone, just above my groin, is knocked up against the bed rim so severely that it leaves crushed-jacaranda-blossom bruises beneath my stomach. I gulp down my tears. Then I pull up my pants and shake John’s hand. John writes down a total of ten jacks in the bank. “Good job,” he says, and rumples my hair one more time. “I’m proud of you.” And self-esteem rises in my throat, sudden and unbidden as grief.
Next afternoon after lunch, when he and all of his possessions are gone, and Patrick is busy moving his clothes, books, and tennis rackets into the room, we ask Neville and Patrick if they, or anyone else, will honor our deposits in the jack bank.
“You fucking idiots,” Neville says. “Nobody else here cares about the jack bank. And we aren’t allowed to jack you anymore anyway.”
“He should be kicked out of the school for this,” Patrick adds. “And as for you boffins—” Here he looks at me, the kid with a reputation for bookishness. “You should all be sent to a special school for dummies.”
We are twelve and thirteen years old, and have just lost our life savings. At first we are furious and outraged: Hirre, man, but John really pulled a blind one on us! At our age, however, losses, whether financial or otherwise, do not weigh as heavily on us as they do on grownups. We grumble and complain, but then as the weeks go by and we no longer see John—deprived of his prefect’s badge, he has vanished into his room in the recesses of the matric passage—we gradually forget about the jack bank.
In the years that follow, no doubt many of us go on to both encounter and dish out more treatment along the lines of John’s sadism. In the whites-only South African Defence Force, genitalia polishing, beatings, simulated sexual intercourse for joke value, and runs to the point of exhaustion are all commonplace in conscripts’ basic training. On the Angolan border, captured guerrilla fighters are fried alive on burning tank engines; in police interrogation cells, detainees are tortured using cock-shock machines and staged hangings. Decades later, when the Abu Ghraib prison scandal breaks, it will become clear that our career opportunities for violence, cruelty, and sadism are even greater than they seemed at the dawn of our lives: they literally span continents, decades, and civilizations.
In the great, boundless economy of cruelty and violence, in the fertile treasury of evil stored in our flawed human hearts—here deposits, withdrawals, and interest payments are ever circulating, and dividend-paying investments seldom fail to achieve returns on their capitalizations.