This is one of the hardest posts I’ve ever written.
On a late afternoon in July 1991, I spent several long minutes in a police holding cell, at the Randburg police station, to think about what I had done earlier that day.
In 1990 and halfway through 1991, I spent 18 months of hell at boarding school. We’re talking Ninth Circle stuff here towards the end. On the day before I was due to return on an overnight train for the third of four terms for ninth grade, I told my parents I didn’t fit in and didn’t want to go back. What followed was a lot of soul-searching from my father, and me having to find a new school to attend. The options were limited to one: I wanted to go to the school my best friend was at.
Coincidentally, changing schools in the middle of winter and in a different province meant that I had two more weeks of vacation. Two more weeks of freedom, no longer dreading my return to a place that was terrible and awful and psychologically scarred me for life. I remember phoning a friend I’d made at the school and told him I was no longer returning. Interestingly, he’d long forgotten me by the time I rediscovered him on Facebook nearly two decades later. Memory is a funny thing. I remember so much of my time there, short as it was. To almost everyone else, I was gone and forgotten.
Two weeks of vacation, and idle hands. Now that some of the psychological weight had lifted, I invited my best friend to my house, and to bring his air rifle. My father worked all day at the bank, and my mother was at work until around lunch time, so we had free reign. I had been at his house a few days before that, where we had been doing target practice. Two fourteen-year-olds with pellet guns and no adult supervision, what a combination. My brother who was at home as well, made for an excellent moving target in my opinion (he had just turned ten).
But something fateful happened, involving a piece of electronic equipment, that changed the course of my life even more than changing schools. The fax machine rang in my father’s office (the study, which he had repurposed for his side gig), and I went to go and watch it, leaving my friend to do whatever it is he was doing.
Normally my father’s business partner worked from the house (in the days before it was considered creepy to give a stranger a key to your house full of kids), but on that particular day he did not. As it turns out, he defrauded a bunch of people which we discovered after my father died, so perhaps he was out defrauding someone on that day.
In any case, I watched a fax come in, fascinated by how it all worked. I love this kind of magic indistinguishable from technology. The paper gets heated up on a drum and somehow the message comes through over the telephone wire.
For some reason I felt obliged to reply to the fax, because while I’d seen adults operate this machine, I’d never done it myself. My experience with electronics was limited. There was that one time I accidentally erased the greeting from the answering machine and had to re-record it, much to my father’s annoyance. When I was younger I managed to get sand inside a toy that I loved, and even though my parents took it apart, cleaned it thoroughly and put it back together again, it was never the same.
So I looked at the fax, took a piece of paper and wrote in large letters the word “Thanks”, followed by the large initials of my father’s business partner, the same one who defrauded him. Maybe he got pissed off with a punk kid messing with him and that’s what made him steal from my father, but who knows?
I put the page into the machine and dialled the number of the company that had just sent a sales brochure to one of their distributors, and sent the fax. A job well done, I thought.
But now I was bored and had completely forgotten about my best friend who was sitting in another room in the house waiting for me to come back. I saw the sales fax from the company again, and thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I sent them another message? I could write it with my right hand (I’m left-handed) and no one would recognise it.”
I took a second piece of paper, wrote “YOU WILL ALL DIE WITHIN 24 HRS” with my right hand, and sent it.
After a few minutes nothing happened, so I thought I’d fax my mother at work. This time however, I analysed the top of the sales brochure fax, and figured out that I didn’t want the phone number to show up when my mother got the fax. I don’t remember if I wrote something or just randomly picked up a page off the desk (this particular detail is lost in the sands of time), but I do remember taking a pen and scribbling over the top corner so that the number would be obscured when it came through at my mother’s work.
A few minutes later she called the house and told me to stop playing with the fax machine. After I expressed shock at her discovery, she explained that the phone number appeared above the page that was being sent, so there was no way to obscure the number unless I changed a setting on the machine, and that was outside my pay grade.
I found the two pages I’d faxed, and destroyed them. I don’t remember if I burned them (I was a bit of a firebug back then, and two of my friends had already set a mountain alight after putting out cigarettes in dried leaves) or tore them up into little pieces, but I got rid of the evidence. My friend had come to find me by now, and then we probably went to watch TV or shoot pellets at my brother. Whatever it was, I clean forgot about the fax machine.
My mother came home at her usual time. We had lunch and then she decided to take us to a movie, Edward Scissorhands. Consider how great that film was, before we knew what a jerk Johnny Depp was, and you might understand why I still didn’t remember about the fax machine. My friend left, and then it was still daylight when my father came home.
When I say my father worked all day, I mean it. He’d leave in the dark and return in the dark. In later years he would drive me into school if he was working downtown, but mostly we only saw him after 8pm and on weekends. But this early evening, his car screeched into the driveway and as soon as he came into the house, yelled for my mother.
After some minutes of what I euphemistically call a “loud discussion”, he called my name. I knew as soon as I heard it that I had done something wrong, but I will swear to my dying day I only remembered the fax machine after he thrust two pages into my face and asked “What the fuck is this?”. Up to that moment, I thought maybe someone had complained about the pellet guns and I was already composing my excuse.
The first thought in my mind was “How did he get those? I got rid of them.” but as I realised he was holding the printouts from the other end, the look on my face gave the game away, and he laid into me like never before or since. I was a frequent recipient of physical beatings, but this was another level. I was sent to my room in a not insignificant amount of pain and tears to write three letters of apology: one to the company which had been evacuated for several hours while the bomb squad searched their premises, one to my father’s business partner, and one to my father.
After writing these letters, which didn’t take me very much time, my father did something that I can’t explain in words. He indicated to my mother to take me to my next appointment, because if he had, I may have been even worse off. The look on his face in that moment was indescribable. Bruised and battered that I was, I was to go with my mother somewhere.
It didn’t take long to figure out where. Whether they had called ahead to the police station to arrange it, or the station commander happened to be available, I don’t know, but soon I found myself crying in his office, my mother in tears beside me, and the faxes in his hand. He asked if I was ever going to do this again, and I promised him I would not. Then, he said that if the company had pressed charges, I could spend up to ten years in prison for terrorism, despite only being fourteen years old. If he was just trying to scare me and there was no chance I’d be tried as a minor, I believed him sincerely. To drive the point home, he and my mother took me to the holding cells, and introduced me to one that happened to be open. After a quick tour of the facilities, he closed the door.
When people ask me why I’m so hard about doing the right thing now, this was the moment in my life I was scared straight. Over the years, if I was being an asshole, just the threat of having the police called on me was enough to remind me. It wasn’t the beating my father gave me. It wasn’t his distance over the months that followed. It wasn’t having to accompany my mother to her day job every vacation until she stopped working there. It was the moment of quiet contemplation in a police holding cell.
I’m sorry for what I did. It was senseless. It was childish. It was not funny. And my friend had nothing to do with it.
One day I’ll write about what happened to me at boarding school. It’s not an excuse, but it may explain some of my behaviour.