French letter

2009-11-21 00:00

ALONG with woodwork and singing the only thing I remember of school days with any joy was English Grammar, and all three delights came pretty well at the beginning of that ghastly grind of boredom and dreary malehood, when I was but 10 or so years old. I saw grammar in the same light as taking my pushbike apart and washing the bits in paraffin and bolting them back together again with a good squirt of oil on the bearings. I knew what my machinery was doing as I sped about Maritzburg; good bicyclism and happy talking arise from technique, you see.

But on gorgeous Sunday mornings when the air was laden with floral perfumes and so silent without the din and stink of traffic you could hear small birds’ and insects’ conversations, and from 10 to 11the city hall bells would play real folk tunes you could sing along with, on such gorgeous mornings, I say, I would sit in a goddam Sunday school in a collar, tie and blazer and wonder what the bloody hell a fat old fart called Mister Shicely was talking about. Mister Shicely also had a collar and tie and a Raj-type solar topee and horrible halitosis. We kids used to gather round a table for our week’s worth of basic metaphysics and we’d all scramble to sit furthest away from Mister Shicely so he couldn’t breathe on us. There is no life, truth, intelligence nor substance in matter, Mister Shicely would breathe, then after a bit we’d sing a metaphysical hymn, like: Eternal mind the potter is, and thought th’ eternal clay, The hand that fashions is divine, His thoughts pass not away and I would pass the time analysing this sentence according to the rules of grammar, you know: main clause, subordinate adverbial and adjectival clauses etc, also we’d done Figures of Speech at school, like metaphors and things, so I’d wonder how a hand that fashions could have thoughts that didn’t pass away.

My school chum Loonybin Bettleham, now, he sang lekker hymns at his Sunday school. Hobgoblin nor foul fiend shall daunt his spirit, he would sing. Maybe my ma wouldn’t know if I just went to your S/school, said I. Forget it, said Loonybin, he wasn’t getting along too well with God these days, who put all sorts of delights upon this earth like cigarettes and girls and then said you shouldn’t contemplate them, so as to test your dedication. Well He could stick His dedication where the monkey sticks his nuts. Said Loonybin. Then curiously without any pre-planning one Sunday we just didn’t go to our Sunday schools at all, we just took our collection money and bought CtoC cigarettes and cycled down to the Dusi for learning to smoke and contemplating girls.

But esp. contemplating girls. Sex. Nobody told us about sex, see, and if you asked a big boy of 14 or so about sex he would curl his lip hideously and tell you to footsack, go and grow up somewhere. Big boys of 14 had a sort of brotherhood, you know, sort of secret, they would go about in peer groups and contemplate girls, and there was one name of Bartle (after Frere) Anderson who was known to possess a thing called a French Letter which a man had to apply when randomly doing sex with women if he didn’t want to be father to an entire clan of the fruits of his loins. It was well known that B. Anderson would apply his French Letter naked in front of a full-length wardrobe mirror in his bedroom so as to contemplate his malehood and test the French Letter for efficacy since he didn’t want to become a father at 14. Small boys knew about this by word of mouth, but we had no brotherhood, no culture of French Letters. With no logical method available we would contemplate girls in lonely hot baths and try to work out logically how all that apparatus down there performed its function. But there was one thing we knew for sure. You had to have a French Letter if you were going to take your place in this world as a man.

So here we are down at the Dusi then with our pushies and CtoCs, and just over a little rise a pair of lovers settle down in the nice long grass and get along with some happy groping. Loonybin and I do a leopard crawl to get a good view, and after an absolute eternity he whispers to me See! They’re doing it now! Don’t be silly, say I, you have to take off all your clothes to do it. What for, stupid? says he, and as we thus bicker and debate the lovers get up and stroll off hand-in-hand. We rush over! There where the grass is crushed cosy and still warm Loonybin scrabbles about and finds in the sand a one-inch old glass motor-car fuse. Triumphantly he holds it aloft. There you are, he cries, a French letter!

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