The Beneficiaries - Excerpt

Matins

First rising for the Girls’ Division is at six-fifteen, but in the summer months Lally invariably gets up before that, stimulated by the dawn – the fierce linear pyre of orange that breaks suddenly and shockingly above the low hills to the east of the valley.

One privilege that she has won for herself in a decade of boarding school is to have her bunk next to the window, and now she slips from beneath her blanket and kneels in her nightgown at the sill. The morning air is crisp and pungent with the scents of grass and flowering heath, and the sky is adopting a sheen of powdery cloudless blue where the more sombre bruises of night-blue are rapidly disappearing.

The white district still slumbers, but the township, sprawled across the river marshland to the south of the valley, is alive with the excited barking of dogs ending their lonely night vigils, and disintegrating drifts of woodsmoke from a thousand pots of phutu stewing over a thousand fires.

Closer at hand, lights are blazing in the windows of the Boys’ Division. She can hear the thin wail of the wake-up siren, followed almost instantly by the clattering echo of feet on stairs. She imagines them queuing for the showers, the wincing contortion of their faces as the first gelid smack of water hits their still drowsy skins, hands hurriedly soaping at limbs and bottoms so that they can retreat from the jet, stamping and grinning. Now they are piling out on to the rugby field in their khakis, as they do every morning, sorting themselves into their platoons, standing fixedly to attention as the Cadet Master, Major Carlton, comes striding magisterially over the lawns.

‘Atten-shun!’ bawls the Major, and the boys are as straight as corn plants, eyes forward, arms plumb-lined to their sides. The Major is moving expertly along the lines, checking out the condition of the troops. He finds a boy with a button missing and writes an order slip for jacks after breakfast, which he folds and puts into the boy’s shirt pocket.

Lally grins maliciously from her vantage point – she doesn’t like the boy, and she will enjoy his discomfiture through the morning, like the others will mock as he leans forward with his ribcage pressed against the desk to keep the weight off the jack stripes, the shame of tears whelming irrepressibly in the corners of his eyes. The boys are marching now; a several hundredfold machine of pressed khaki, with the Major shouting stentorian orders from the front. He prides himself on not having to use a loudhailer, but his voice over the course of the hour grows increasingly cracked and squeaky and some braver boys, during the duller parts of lessons, have been known to take off the Major’s strained ten-to-seven bray.

The Major is from Rhodesia, where the War is still raging and will rage for another two years, but last year the Major got a phone call while in the field announcing that his wife (whom he had left on the farm in the care of neighbours) had been dismembered, and so had the neighbours. So he collected his two young daughters from school in Salisbury and came down south. The Major does not see this act as desertion – Rhodesia will fall, and if you ask him he will tell you why in unambiguous and emphatic adjectives.

Outnumbered! Under-prepared! Betrayed!

If you ask him, ‘Betrayed by whom?’ he will tell you, ‘Her Majesty,’ and the perfidy of that royal personage is, of course, the crux of the whole matter.

But South Africa, as he tells his boys, has a better fighting chance. Anyway, our backs are against the wall; we’re the last hope for the white man in Africa, and if this nation falls it won’t be because the boys from this School were under-prepared!

Lally can see Michael marching. He’s a lacklustre marcher – not lazy or clumsy, but he doesn’t have Pim’s precision and panache. He will never, like Pim, carry the Sword of Honour at the inter-schools parade. There are four children in Pim’s family – all boys. The next in line, Ross, is thirteen, and Lally’s eyes strafe down the lines until she finds him – a maladroit, uncoordinated boy struggling to keep in step with the others. Six years from now Ross will fail to get down when he should have got down, and will die painfully under a fever tree from septicaemia resulting from a shrapnel wound in the stomach lining, too full of pus by the time the orderlies arrive to be high priority. Oddly, there’s something dead about him already, although he is incontestably alive; his dull blond hair cropped close to his head and his flaked skin prematurely wizened by the sun.

The youngest son, by a long stretch, is Mark, who is only in the first year and is too small to be in the Cadets. Often Mark is observable in the window of the Grade One dormitory, his fleshy child’s fingers webbed against the panes, enthralled by the Cadets. Sometimes he even breaks out, running over the fields in his bare feet and flapping dressing gown to kneel in the dew and watch. He should get jacks for that, but the Major has a soft spot for Mark and only slaps him on his rump:

‘Your time will come, m’boy. Run along before Matron catches you, or you’ll be in hot water!’

Inside Lally’s dormitory, a girl who is dreaming restlessly – fractured, almost-awake dreams – cries out in her sleep.

‘Shut up!’ says another girl irritably. She is wound up in a cocoon of sheets, trying to savour every possible minute before the siren goes.

Outside the marching has stopped and the boys are doing exercises. The Major is sending his pimpled privates in search of invisible Matabele lurking behind the goal posts. After a while they divide into groups: some boys are the South African Defence Force, and others are the Enemy. The SADF skirmishes forward through the dew in a low-slung leopard crawl, although in some cases:

‘Bottom, Stonier, you blistering idiot!’ bawls the Major, and Stonier digs his testicles obediently into the grass cover. The SADF are slugging the Enemy with their imaginary firearms now, and those impersonating the Enemy are dying, as Africans are understood to, at a stroke, like impalas trapped by lions, without fussing about last words, because Africans think collectively and not individually, which makes them, the Major stresses again and again, a formidable enemy in battle.

A series of minivans crawling up the slight rise toward the School heralds the arrival of the real Africans, who are singing but fall silent once they pass the gatepost. The vans pull up in front of the School Block; the passengers clamber out. Before dispersing they attend to their clothing; to their wellingtons and their overalls and the doeks they tie over their heads to keep the dust from their hair. Beneath the white hierarchy of the School – the headmaster, teachers and hostel staff, school prefects, house prefects and ordinary pupils – there is another, black, hierarchy: a busy subterranean hive of groundsmen, gardeners and handymen, cooks, kitchen staff and cleaning staff. The children call the men who work in the grounds ‘the garden boys’, and the women who cook and serve ‘the kitchen girls’, but the women who clean in the School Block and the hostels, with whom they have more direct contact, they call siesie, a Xhosa/Afrikaans hybrid term for ‘little sister’.

The garden boys and the kitchen girls and the siesies disappear to their respective work zones as the wail of the wake-up siren for the Girls’ Division cuts plangently through the air. The Major calls the parade to attention to prevent the unnecessary diverting of focus which inevitably occurs when the privates imagine they might catch a glimpse of the young women in their nightgowns through the inadequately reflecting windows. The Year Prefect arrives and switches on the light behind Lally, and girls are leaping from their bunks and racing to gain the showers, knowing that the first few litres of water will have benefited from an effective overnight residency in the heating cylinder. The daylight is whitening, and a vapoury pall signals the evaporation of the dew from the grass and the heathery embankments whose scent, thwarted by rising heat, becomes less piquant.

It’s another day in Africa.