When you’re nine it’s a big deal, moving from a town with dirt streets to a city with streets claimed to be paved with gold.
The move from Steynsburg to Johannesburg was such: could it get any grander than to live in the City of Gold? The intimidating metropolis brought homage to its name by the goldmines embracing it on all sides, man-made mountain ranges; pallid mounts of dirt with gold glitter from deep within the belly of the earth—each rectangular structure, ten-stories high and covering ten football fields, stretching as far as the eye could see.
The infatuation rubbed off soon enough as we discovered the restless city streets were all paved with ordinary sticky black tar, and yet, we remained enamored as we lost count of the endless number of roads, traffic lights, trees, houses, buildings, cars, buses, trucks, and scooters; and oh my, its people: innumerable—in all shapes and shades and sizes. Not only were the schools bigger, the cars faster, its people more restless, but there were also more bullies and trolls that didn’t live under bridges.
When Neil Diamond made the charts with Solitary Man, supermarkets were an oddity, giving the corner café a cherished place in the heart of each neighborhood. Being in grade four, I was deemed a “big boy,” old enough to pick up bread and milk from the café, every second day. Our neighborhood was tucked in between Third and Fourth Avenue, and First and Thirteenth street. The café was on Seventh Street, about a kilometer and a half from home. Tana Road, where we lived, was an extension of Fourth Avenue and immediately south of Thirteenth Street.
Halfway to the café, on Fourth Avenue, nestled a cluster of apartment buildings, giving safe haven to three hobgoblins, pre-pubescent boys, who took it as their calling to harass and prevent me from reaching the café. Two of the boys were about my age and size, while the ring-leader towered over us all. How they knew the exact moment I would be passing, remains a mystery, even to this day.
There would be no sign of the three vagabonds, causing me to breathe easier, while still hurrying across the no man’s land zone, only, for the next moment to be ambushed. “Got you, Boertjie!”
I would holler with surprise, darting this way and that to outmaneuver the trio.
The leader was faster with his long legs and arms and had me by the collar a second time. “You’re going nowhere.”
“That’s what you think!” became my battle cry as I’d duck and yank myself free, only then to try and break the land speed record. My sandaled feet would thunder down the sidewalk, louder than a herd of wildebeest, away from the jeering and sneering and roaring laughter, while their “See you tomorrow, Mommy’s Boy!” lingered with me for days.
I’d only slow down once I reached the café’s street, my heart thumping against my ribcage.
I had several options, though. I could try and push through the ambush, which only sometimes worked. I could go home, which implied I’d have to try again later. I could cross over to the other side of 4th Avenue, a dangerously busy road, taking my life in my hands, with the boys still following me. Or, in desperation, I’d sometimes walk all the way to 3rd Avenue and then north till I reached Seventh Street and all the way back to 4th Ave where the café was, adding another kilometer and a half to my errand. Irrespective of the alternative I chose, there was always much explaining to do when I got back home, and it had taken me longer than usual.
At least once a week the trolls would attempt to ambush me, with varying degrees of success.
On Fridays, after school, when I was exempted from bread and milk-duty, I could at least forget about the bullies and hang out with my friend, Jasper. We excelled at street-roaming. Except for hillbillies and hobgoblins, the world was a safe place then—the only arrangement was that we had to be back home by sunset. Our parents seldom knew exactly where we were, only with whom we were. More often than none, just before the two of us had to head home, we’d end up on the expansive stone steps of the local Roman Catholic Church, situated on the most southern tip of Third Avenue. We both worshipped with our parents at a different denomination but were drawn to the cathedral-like building as if by a magnet.
Oh, the reasons for going there abounded. The sanctuary was never locked during the day (unlike our own church.) It was close to both our homes. Roof-to-floor lead-glass windows bathed the interior in a kaleidoscope of fall colors, impressing even a nine-year-old. I’d often pause and breathe the solemn aroma of wood, stone, dogeared hymnals, and melting wax. Outside, an enormous cross served as a steeple, while its most prominent feature (without a sliver of doubt), was the endless number of burning candles in the back.
It required both of us to push hard to slip through the heavy doors. Then, entering the foyer, on tiptoes, outdoing any mouse, we’d sneak into the vestibule, welcomed by a sea of light—row upon row upon row of gloriously flickering flames. The temptation just became too strong. If there were other worshippers around, we’d feign interest and exit as quietly as we’d come. If, however, for the briefest of moments, we were the only two in the vestibule, we’d do the unthinkable—see which one of us could snuff out the most of the lighted candles.
We seldom managed more than five or six, our fingertips scorched, abandoning the thoughtless deed at the first sound or squeak from in- or outside. Fingers seared, faces red, hearts pounding, we’d escape through the second door at the back, speed-walking while still on church property, only to run for our lives once reaching the sidewalk, even though nobody ever caught us in the act.
Perhaps that is why the harassment by the three trolls of Fourth Avenue continued. It seemed they were instruments employed by the Lord to remain a thorn in my flesh until I saw the error of my ways, particularly the thing we did with the candles.
The bullies bothered me for more than a year.
I never told Father or Mother.
Neither did I dare tell Jasper.
What would they think of me?
Then, one delightful sun-filled day, there was no sign of the three bandits.
I often wondered how that happened. Was it possible that I realized one day I needn’t be scared of the trio any longer? What if the boys woke up one morning, comprehending, being asses weren’t such a fulfilling career after all. Or, more likely, their parents had caught them in the act, reading them their rights, giving the rascals a final warning and fearful ultimatum.
The more plausible reason was that Jasper and I by then had stopped committing the unthinkable, snuffing out the candles.
When you’re ten, it’s a big deal, since you’re now really a big boy living in the City of Gold and could easier cease with such silliness.
And we did.
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