In the Name of The Lord, bend...

In that shimmering heat we moved over the baked earth like dancing bears on hot plates, skittering from one scorched clump of grass to the next. At the height of summer the South African sun seared the soil so it burnt your feet right through the leather of your soles. The air wrapped you like a greatcoat.

Sundays were hottest. At state boarding schools where Dutch Reformed churches held sway, regulation dress for the Day of Rest was dark suits, charcoal to funereal black - guaranteed to soak up the heat.

Under the Apartheid regime, every last citizen was under the yoke of theological fascism. On the Day of the Lord, sport was forbidden, cinemas and theatres were closed, pubs were sealed, and sombre music ruled the air waves. Among white Afrikaners, dancing was considered a sin - no matter what day of the week it was. Volksspele, a type of square dancing where only outstretched arms touched fleetingly, was permitted under the watchful eye of elders. Women who experienced orgasm reported to the doctor.

But you can’t keep the lid on a pressure cooker without something giving. So white farmers would cross the border to neighbouring protectorates to have sex with black prostitutes; occasionally a white parson would be caught in the barn with a black servant girl - as often as not leading to the man’s suicide; one minister even kept a plastic sheet in the boot of his car with a 5 cm hole in the middle, so he could penetrate a black woman without offending his finer apartheid sensibilities by making (full) bodily contact. And of course for those with no sexual outlets, there was always violence, the age-old substitute.

So there we were, us little boys, sweltering obediently and trying with all our might to resist the call of the soothing, cooling waters of the Olifants River nearby. Taking a dip meant you were swimming; swimming was a sport, and sport was forbidden on Sundays. While we were able to convince ourselves The Lord might grant special dispensation under extreme conditions, we knew, sure as He made little apples, the teachers would not. Rumour had it that the more committed guardians of the Lord’s Will took turns hiding in the bulrushes beside the river, intent on catching us in flagrante delicto.

But oh that heat! And oh that river! It beckoned us with the irresistable charms of a siren. Our feet - our irreligious, bad bad feet - led us inexorably to the banks where the water chortled and whispered “come on in, come on in”.

What a dilemma. Our little group of four started arguing amongst ourselves. “We daren’t risk it.” “What if there’s no one about?” “Of course they’re here.” “Where then?” “Hiding, stupid.” And on and on. Eventually we agreed to saunter casually along a stretch of river, piercing the undergrowth with X-ray eyes for any sign of a teacher. There was none, so we slunk to the water’s edge, stripped, and glided into the elephant’s welcoming embrace. Blissss...

Bliss shattered by the loud trumpeting of not one, but two teachers, arisen from the reeds like Gog and Magog. There was a wailing and a gnashing of teeth.

Trials were held on Monday nights but were a mere formality. You were always guilty. What varied was the severity of your tormentor, and just our luck to have gotten a hanging judge. His name was Rot, the senior of the two who had trapped us, and his reputation as a sadist had reached us even before he took up his post at our school.

It was his method of caning that struck terror in even the bravest of hearts. And all strictly within the rules. When he said “bend”, your insides turned to jelly. Here’s how it went: we were sentenced to four “cuts”, or strokes with a cane, but instead of hitting you four strokes in a row, Rot would cane the first boy once, then send him to the back of the queue. And so it was with each boy. By the time you came round for cut number two, the numbness induced by the first stroke was wearing off and the second blow fell on a raw and often bleeding wound. And so on with cuts three and four.

Rage crashed about inside you, but all your energy was focussed on not crying out. That satisfaction you would deny this mother-fucking son-of-a-bitch.

And afterwards? Well, you would fantasize about taking revenge on some dark and stormy night, but you did nothing. Mostly.

The following week the school was abuzz. Rot’s car had been vandalized, giant nails hammered into all four tyres and the petrol tank, and to add insult to injury, someone had shat on the front doorstep of his house.

Every schoolboy heart was bursting with joy. It was obvious Rot’s position had become untenable. We prayed he would be quietly transferred...

A transfer there was indeed, but what a travesty of justice it turned out to be! Two of the four clandestine swimmers were absent from school one day and remained absent, without explanation. Gradually the story of their fate emerged: our daring heroes had been transferred - to a reformatory. I and the fourth member of the troupe had been spared. Our story that we had been kept in the dark - as indeed we had - had been deemed credible.

The headmaster announced there was to be “a review of disciplinary methods” and we hoped that Rot would yet get his come-uppance. Due to end-of-year examinations the “hearing” was postponed till after the Christmas break.

It was during those holidays that the headmaster, a passionate fisherman, was washed from a rock by a freak wave, and drowned. Rot returned the following term full of piss and vinegar.