My childhood was no doubt filled with boogie-men and monsters of all varieties. I probably had an innate fear of something dwelling in my cupboard or under my bed or in the bathroom late at night when I went to pee, as all children do. But the monster I remember most is Marcel Fourie.
Marcel was a bully from my primary school. The boy was a mutant; a thing that should not be. He was huge. His very existence was a blasphemous affront to the natural order of the universe. I honestly believed that Marcel actually ate other children, or at least had their pituitary glands cut up into his breakfast cereal like the tiny strawberries in the serving suggestion.
I remember one particular incident with absolute clarity: I’m eleven years old. I’m sitting in the tennis-shack after school. I know that what I’m doing is dangerous. I have weighed it up in my mind and I know that this will lead me to great harm. I do it anyway. I am reading.
Reading is not a good idea. Reading gets people into trouble. Information is dangerous. Always has been. I know this now, even though I don’t yet know about the mechanics of sex, or how to shave. I am too young to have considered the tragic aspect of our culture that shuns any display of intelligence. But I can feel it. I know what is coming.
Marcel appears in the doorway, his sour, sweaty smell sucks all the fresh air from the tiny enclosure. No one is playing tennis this afternoon. No one will hear the last pathetic pleas for mercy from little Mikey Taljaard aka GonzoMike.
My pituitary gland will be ripped from my split-open head and he will chew on it and laugh while brain-juice drips down his chin and no one will be around to say, “Hey! Don’t eat that! He needs that for growth-hormone regulation!” and the only things the world will have to remember me by will be three extra hairs on Marcel Fourie’s scrotum.
“What are you doing?” Marcel asks me.
“Doesn’t look like nothing to me. It looks like you’re reading.”
How very observant of you, Dear Sir! Pull up a bench and together we shall marvel in the simple wonders of fine literature.
Not a chance.
The book is ripped from my hands before I can dissuade him with logical argument.
He begins to read a page out loud, stumbling over words, mocking them with the heavy intonations of some sort of retarded cartoon character. He is trying to mock me, to mock my book, but for just a moment I see his weakness. I see the pained expression on his face underneath all the contortions of hate and mockery. His weakness is that the words don’t make sense to him like they do for me.
In a moment I see a shot at hope. In my eleven year-old imagination, Marcel Fourie, the nightmarish primary school bully is brought to tears by a book. “I’m sorry, Jeremy,” he says, through heavy sobs, “I’ve been so mean to everyone since… forever. The truth is that I can’t read very well and okes like you with your books and stuff make me feel stupid, so I take it out on you with misplaced aggression. Please teach me to be able to read better and be cleverer.”
And in my momentary daydream we are in the library, I’m holding up flash cards with words on them and pictures on the back and we are laughing together and then we are walking around the school together and I am making him apologize to everyone he was mean to and they are all patting him on the shoulder and saying that it’s okay, they understand and everyone lives happily ever after.
“This is kak!” says Marcel Fourie instead.
He rips a page from the book, sticks it down the back of his pants and rubs it all around. When he pulls it out again, there is a smear right across the now crumpled text. I cringe away from this horrendous display. I know what is coming next. He will make me eat it.
Years of TV violence and action movies flash before my eyes. I am suddenly channeling every virtuous super-hero I know. I am the Incredible Hulk. I am Super-Saiyan. I am shaking with anger and disgust and I swear the Highlander soundtrack from Queen is playing. Here we are, born to be kings…
I snatch the book from Marcel. My book. I grip it with both hands and I swing as hard as my little stick arms can swing.
This is my last conscious move for a while. Little Mikey T has checked out.
The book connects with the side of Marcel Fourie’s Saint Bernard face. I’m not even operating in the same timescale as the rest of humanity right now. I’m seeing this in bullet-time. I’m watching Marcel’s jowls distort in big, slow, wobbly waves. I’m watching Marcel Fourie’s saliva splatter against my book, splash against my fingers.
I watch it create a rainbow in the air as it leaves his mouth in a perfect arc through the dusty sunlit air of the tennis shack. I’m thinking, I am in so much kak right now!
Please understand, I do not advocate violence. But I follow through with that perfect swing. I follow through because I am finally standing up for what I believe in. I am defending my own dignity and I am defending knowledge.
I follow through because every now and again, maybe once every four hundred years or so, the universe aligns. Perfection is set into motion. For one split second, for one infinitesimal moment, the world is beautiful. And once this sort of thing starts rolling, you just have to ride the wave all the way out.