First Day by Gail Anderson

Paul WatsonWe are on the roof: Jonathan, Leo, and I. Or rather, I am on the roof, and they are on the ladder. Twelve years old is too young to be on the roof, I tell them, especially such a roof. A stout wind lifted the slates off the back corner last autumn, leaving the fourth form classroom open to the elements. At the time, the fourth form had simply moved in with the third form, and everybody squeezed together. It was warmer that way during the cold, wet months.

Jonathan and Leo are orphans and argue cheerfully that no one will care if they fall off the roof. With twelve-year-old ghoulishness they launch into a competition to enact the most spectacular death-from-roof-falling. They become incapacitated with laughter.

The heat of December and January has dried the damp, and we have sheets of ply and four dozen new slates, thanks to a kind man in the village. It is the first day of February: a clear blue day, not too warm. Today we will make a start on the repair.

This place is Oranjekloof, forgotten cousin of the fashionable seaside village of Hout Bay. The main road to Cape Town passes our unmarked and scarcely-paved right turn and continues onward to more interesting places.Here, there is an airy grove of whispering eucalyptus, and the ground is thinly carpeted with fragrant leaves. In a broad and dusty clearing stand a few neglected structures, and a single water tap. There is no electricity. It is 1990, but it could just as easily be 1890.

On the uphill side of the clearing is Oranjekloof School, the centre of non-white education for the entire district. The shabby school building is fronted by a broad concrete veranda, with a metal-rimmed fire ring on the right and an enormous griddle and three-footed cauldron nearby. There are more windows than walls; the deeply shaded glass shimmers as one approaches through the trees. One hundred yards away at the bottom of the clearing is a small house, an orphanage. Both buildings have an air of gentle desiccation. At the fringe of the trees to the right is a gathering of modest gravestones and a roofless foursquare church.

* * *

I discovered this lonely place by accident one Saturday at the end of a long walk. I returned the next morning and found the headmistress, Mrs. Mosieling, in her tiny office.

“Is there anything that needs doing here?’ I began. Clearly there was. ‘I’m quite handy. I can paint, maybe do some repairs…”

Mrs. Mosieling was unsure how to respond. In her experience, men did physical work—black or coloured men, not white men. And certainly not white women. And yet the disparity of our situations in apartheid South Africa—I white, she black—meant that she had to try to accommodate me somehow.

“You could perhaps come and read the children a story?” she suggested tentatively.

I returned the next day with can of glazing and repaired the falling-out windows of the first form classroom. I returned each school day, and the weeks passed quietly into months. Mrs. Mosieling was dubious at first, but quickly warmed to the notion of a free handywoman. There was so much work to be done. The kind owner of the ironmonger’s on the verge of the white neighbourhood donated supplies: new glass, screws, nails, a bit of odd carpeting, and the occasional gallon of paint, the first of which—bright peach—for days made the younger children round-eyed with wonder.

Jonathan and Leo had appeared wordlessly at my side from day two. They hammered, spread plaster and daubed paint during the many gaps in their erratic school day, and far into their parentless afternoons.

* * *

But back to the roof.

Jonathan is at the foot of the ladder, his previously smiling face now serious.

‘Please—come look.’

At the front of the school, hanging upside down in the high branches of a eucalyptus, is a dove. One foot is caught fast in a seedpod, a little thing with crevices deep enough to entrap a slender toe. At our appearance the dove panics and flaps her wings desperately, thrashing the surrounding leaves. We watch, sure at any moment she will break free and fly away. She flings herself left and right with energy but remains firmly tethered.

The noise and the sight of us, in front of the school staring upward quickly, attracts the attention of the students nearest the windows. Soon we are joined by the rest of the school: two hundred children, unexpectedly freed from class, descend happily into the yard along with their teachers. We form a wide circle around the dove, gazing up. The teachers drift together, exchanging amused looks and shrugging at the novelty of it.

The dove is far too high to reach, even with our ladder. The overhanging branches are too slender to approach her by climbing, although several boys attempt to scale the enormous trunk. Frightened by the crowd, the bird continues to struggle, beating her wings among the branches. Soon it becomes clear that the bird cannot escape, and that we are merely voyeurs watching her suffering. The children look to the teachers, and the teachers glance nervously at one another. The exhausted dove hangs limply, breathing hard.

Mrs. Mosieling puts up her hands. “There is nothing we can do,” she declares in her Speaking-To-The-Children voice. “Better to go back inside.”

The dove is gently grasping at air with her free foot. Her soft grey feathers are disarrayed by gravity as an awful relaxation comes upon her. Jonathan’s and Leo’s hands, clasped in mine, grip tightly.

Nobody sees him until he enters the schoolyard. He’s a young man, maybe a farmer from further up the hill. His clothes are powdered with earth, darkened with sweat: brown trousers, a dusty, straw-coloured canvas shirt, a broad-brimmed leather hat. His light brown hair is slightly curly. Even the man himself is slightly brown—though the blacks would have called him white, and the whites, winking grotesquely, would have said “touch of the tar-brush there.” He holds a rifle, broken open, across one arm.

“All right, now,” says Mrs. Mosieling firmly, seeing the man. “Everyone go inside.” The children shuffle around just enough to create the appearance of children who are going inside. The man nods to the teachers and joins our circle.

He looks at the dove, her body slowly turning. He looks at the schoolhouse.

“I need to be on the roof,” he says quietly.

Jonathan, Leo and I come with the ladder, and many hands help to lean it against the eaves of the veranda. The man looks again at the dove. He adjusts his rifle. He steps up onto the ladder.

“At least the poor bird will be out of its misery,” sighs Mrs. Umbeppe.

“The children must not see,” hisses Mrs. Mosieling. “Everyone—go inside,” she cries, clapping her hands. “Go on now!”

The children closest to Mrs. Mosieling move away, and a few climb onto the veranda and linger, hugging the pillars. They are eyeing Mrs. Mosieling, who is obviously not going inside herself, now watching the stranger with the gun.

The man reaches the top of the ladder and steps carefully onto the slates. Crouching down, he looks to the dove; then edges higher to the crest of the roof, where he throws one leg over the ridge. The bird is eye-level now, and about forty feet away.

Time begins to slow down. He snaps his rifle straight, and holds it gently in both hands, squaring his shoulders. He looks broadly around him: at the children, two hundred anxious faces looking up; at the yard, the graves, the dusty orphanage, the ribbon of road, the distant sea. He gazes with the absorption of a man seeing a stirring view for the first time, there on the roof. He sighes., and raises the gun to his shoulder and takes aim. The dove is hanging limply, wings stretched to earth, eyes closed.

The rifle jerks upward. The man recoils, and we all jump as the air explodes with the report. The dove begins to drop. Falling slowly, her grey down ruffling, her wings buoyed by the passing air, she falls quite a distance before the motion invigorates her. She’s free.

She spreads her wings. Inches above the ground she spins, flapping frantically, swirling up a dusty cloud.

A swath of children duck as she sweeps past. One foot is still wearing the little eucalyptus pod and a couple of inches of stem. Cheering and shouting, we sprint behind her, flying down the yard as she rises through the trees. We hurl ourselves against the fence, twining our fingers in its iron mesh, watching her out of sight.

The young man is leaving the yard as we turn back to the school. There are handshakes and backslaps from the teachers. The man nods a shy, smiling glance at the children and is off over the hilltop, back to his work.

The teachers are arrayed in disagreement over what has just happened.

“The noise frightened the bird,” Mrs. Mosieling is certain the brown man has done nothing. “And she kicked harder than before and broke free.”

Mrs. Umbeppe shakes her head. “He was aiming at the bird but missed,” she declares. “And hit the twig! A very lucky bird.”

Jonathan, Leo, and I, back on roof and ladder, disagree with both of these explanations.

“The bird did not kick,” says Jonathan, handing me some nails. “She dropped before she began to fly.” We had all seen this.

“He did not come to kill the bird with everybody watching,” says Leo, firmly. Mrs. Umbeppe is wrong, too.

“He was a good shot. He freed her on purpose.” says Jonathan, smiling.

* * *

The next day, Jonathan, Leo, and I are on the road. We are walking into the village, as we do many mornings, to collect a donation to the school: day-old bread, meat bones, and wilted vegetables from the white community’s shops. Mrs. Umbeppe will make this into a delicious soup for the school lunch, in the three-footed cauldron on the veranda. We hold hands because the road, while not busy, has many curves and cars come quickly.

At the corner where the sand of the inland dunes blows over the road, at the place where the squatters’ camps are visible, we hear a car. It’s approaching quickly, horn honking, and we step back off the road. We can’t yet see the car, but the squatters can. They turn from their fires and their chores, expressions of disbelief and awe on their faces.

A combie van flies past, heading out of the valley. It is full of shouting men and ablaze with flags of black and green and yellow, the colours of the African National Congress. The squatters cheer, their fists raised aloft. Jonathan’s and Leo’s hands tighten in mine.

“They will be arrested, sure,” whispers Jonathan. The ANC is banned, and its colours cannot be displayed. We stare in amazement as the van careens around another curve, then another, flags flapping.

Back at the school, we find an impromptu carnival in progress. The men will not be arrested; the ANC were un-banned today, only hours ago! The children have made paper hats and banners, sashes and flags, black and green and yellow. The schoolyard is full of games and shouting. Mrs. Umbeppe is making griddle cakes over the fire on the veranda. The teachers are beaming. There is rumour that Mandela may even be released.

* * *

At the end of the day the other children and the teachers go to their homes. We are back on the roof, all three of us. You can’t keep boys off the roof forever—and besides, our back corner has its plywood in place, so now there is structure.

We linger, watching the day end. The land is awash in warm light and long shadows. The outlines of ourselves, the school, the graves, and the trees stretch toward the sea, a scene of dark green, warm gold and deep onyx blue. There is a small pile of slates still to be nailed down before the roof is finished. This will happen tomorrow. This evening we sit with the sun warming our backs while the approaching night cools our faces.

Leo breaks the silence. “I wonder if the bird has got the pod off her foot?” We all smile. These two days have brought freedoms, large and small.

After a pause, Jonathan answers.

“Yes,” he says. “Now she is free, and not hanging upside down, she can sort it out in her own time. There will be no problem.”

gail andersonGail Anderson has worked as an animator, a musical instrument repair technician, a reference librarian and a graphic designer, and has lived in the US, Scotland and South Africa. Her current home is England, where she is a writer and communications dogsbody at the University of Oxford, and a recent graduate of Oxford’s Diploma in Creative Writing. Her first novel (in progress) is a mystery tale set in the Scottish Highlands. Twitter: @smallgreenberd.

 

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  • What an engaging, incredible story. This is a part of the world I would never otherwise glimpse, and framing the constraints of apartheid in that pivotal time of change in South Africa against the metaphor of the captured dove is so beautifully done. Wonderful job, Gail!