The Hands Of God

I had done rather well in my junior secondary exams and had won admission into a prestigious Catholic school – arguably the most prestigious school in this small country. My older brother had already been there and spoke of it in glowing terms so I was excited to go there too. I loved the fact that the school was on a sprawling campus occupying an entire hill with breath taking views from where you could see Lake Victoria from one side and some gentle, undulating hills from another. The hills turned into lighter shades of blue as they receded into the distance. The school church was a beautiful modernist building – an anachronism in the heart of Africa. The roof was a pale pastel green – tarnished copper – and was shaped like some giant, sweeping, twisted, pencil wood shaving.   By the main classrooms was our newly built library, again a modern building, flooded in natural light  and when I first went in I thought I had died and gone to book-heaven. There were books on every subject on earth, magazines, Time, Newsweek & Life magazines, National Geographics galore and best of all, it had a fabulous art section that I’d spend many a blissful hour leafing through.

Everywhere were immaculately manicured lawns and flower beds, domesticated exotic tropical plants and trees. To instil self-discipline most of the maintenance of the campus was done by us, the students. To a twelve year old this was heaven.

Sports were compulsory for all. We were to work hard and play hard. We had a cricket pitch, an Olympic sized running track, four tennis courts, three football pitches and a hockey field. You could play basketball or table-tennis if you wished. The one thing we didn’t have was a swimming pool. But, no matter, the French Canadian Christian Brothers, who owned and ran the school, had that covered too. Ingeniously, they’d decided that the great Lake Victoria would be our pool! On Saturday and Sunday afternoons we were allowed to walk down through some bushy country, across some farmland and then on to the dirt road the mile and a half to the lake.

And so, for me, 1964 passed gently and happily at the ‘Harrow of Uganda’. News of the larger world outside occasionally slipped into our lives via the wireless or the library magazines.  There were convulsions of all sorts but to a twelve year old mind it seemed distant. The self-appointed Field Marshall John Okello attempted a revolution in Zanzibar. People were killed. We had relatives there who had a harrowing time and the once idyllic spice island my parents had married on was never to recover. Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as the 36th US President. Mum insisted it was he who must have been behind J. F. Kennedy’s assassination.

“How do you know this, Mum?”.

“Be quiet! I know. You can see it all over his face,” she’d say.

Dad said, “She has inside information!!” and roared with his taunting, bronchial laugh.

There were civil rights protests in the USA and we heard of MalcolmX and Martin Luther King Jr. Dad said Martin Luther King was like a well fed, black Mahatma Gandhi with smaller ears though and advocated peaceful protest while MalcolmX, well…..MalcolmX wore glasses and you couldn’t trust a chap with such heavily framed glasses and a gun, could you? The bird like Lal Bahadur Sashtri became India’s prime minister. Two years later he died in a mysterious plane crash over Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on his way to Moscow.

“It’s the Russians who’ve bumped him off,” Mum used to say.

“How do you know this, Mum?”

“They’re Communists and they hate Catholics”.

“But Sashtri wasn’t  a Catholic, Mum.”

“Be quiet! Those Communists can’t be trusted. It said so in the Reader’s Digest, anyway! Ask Dad. He’ll tell you all about the Dominican theory,” she said.

“The Domino theory,” Dad would shout from over his paper.

You know what, Mum? The Commies probably did bump him off or, was it the Americans?

The older boys talked about some amazing bands called The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Bro. Paul, school principle and WW2 veteran, dismissed it as “devil music. It stirs feelings in your loins and makes you want to do naughty things with girls!” My older sister adored a chap called Pat Boon but when I heard him I said I’d rather poke rusty knitting needles in my ears. Give me Bob Dylan any day, I said. “He’s a poet, you know?” What would a pipsqueak like me know anyway, she insisted.  Dylan made her want to slash her wrists, she said.

Into my beautiful, settled, sunny world, during our 2nd semester, where the beginnings of Physics, Higher Maths and the periodic table preoccupied us, walked the affable, rotund Bro. Richard. Brother Richard was an excellent Biology teacher. He brought the subject alive. He had just come from Quebec.  He was such a friendly and approachable man and had even volunteered to be the school bursar.

“Why don’t you come to my lab after classes, seeing as you’re so keen and all,” he said.

Kiwanuka said he’d asked him too. He would show us some amazing stuff, he said. Maybe we’d do some experiments together, he said. I really liked him.  He once gave me a whole bag of gob-stopper Blue Bell bubble gum, gently hugging me as he handed me the packet. One of the wrappers had a picture of Elvis in Flaming Star. I ironed it out and used it as a book mark in my copy of Julius Caesar.  My jaw ached for a week after that; eating all the gob-stoppers at once might have had something to do with it.

One lazy Saturday, after lunch, Suresh said, “Anyone for table tennis?”

“Naa! Why don’t we head off to the lake for a swim? What about you, Kiwanuka? Coming?” I enquired.

Kiwanuka, my friend, said, “Let’s go via that the guava orchard. It’s dripping with fruit this time of year. We can grab a few if we’re careful.”

I was hesitant. That was stealing.

“We can always go to confession tomorrow and have our sin washed away. What say?”, said Ki smiling.

“I’m Hindu, remember? Doesn’t bother me,” said Suresh.

We grabbed our towels and swimming trunks, slipped on our flip flops and started down the hill. Kiwanuka found a long flexible stick which he pushed along the path making believe he was driving a car. We soon came to the edge of the guava orchard. The trees were overladen with fruit. We could easily reach the low hanging guavas.

“I wish I’d brought some chilli powder and salt. It’s a killer combination.” We salivated at the thought.

Ambling past the fields we got to the tree lined road joking and telling tales. Kiwanuka said, “ My Dad  wrestled and killed a  sixteen foot crocodile, you know?”

“Oh yeh? What was it…..a rubber croc?!” teased  Suresh.

We finally got to the little cliff before descending down to the beach of sharp sand……you could hear the fresh water snakes slither swiftly away from us in the long grass.

“Hey, do you know Gold Finger is playing in Kampala? It’s the new James Bond movie with loads of sexy girls. Shall we go next Saturday?”

“We’re under age,” said Kiwanuka. “I’m broke, anyway.”

“No worries, we’ll say we’re 13. I’ve got enough of dough. My parents have left loads of cash with the bursar,” I half boasted.

We got into our trunks and waded into the warm water. Sunlight danced on the waves through the trees. Soon we were splashing about and horsing around. The air was full of the laughter of boys and splashing water. I could not swim really, so I stayed in the shallow and sloshed about.

Bro. Richard then appeared on the cliff and I waved frantically to him and he waved back at us. A boy next to me said what on earth are you doing that for. Eh? I queried.  He kissed his teeth in the disapproving manner of Africans and swam on. The Canadian took off his shirt and wrap-around towel displaying a huge body. He had a barrel of a hairy chest and legs the size of tree trunks! His skin was white and pale. As he stepped into the lake a large number of boys, en masse, started to wade out of the water to the shore, wrapping themselves in their towels, kneecaps quivering.  Bro. Richard was a powerful swimmer and in no time he was out to the ‘floating pool’, an ingenious anchored quadrangle of a wooden platform floating on sealed oil drums. It even had a diving tower. Some of the planks were slippery with green slime but we did not care; it was our pool.

Then, as I was about to splash water in Suresh’s face I felt two large arms grab me from behind and lift me into the air and bring me back down into the lake. The suddenness of this frightened me at first but when I saw Suresh laugh his head off I took it as a bit of fun. It was Bro. Richard. He’d swum underwater for a long distance undetected and surprised us. He lifted me several times rubbing me against his body as I went up  and down.  I swallowed some water in the melee and started to cough and splutter. He let go a little and I managed to break away. It was like running through treacle. There was still much laughter in the air. “That wasn’t funny,” I said still coughing.

“Catch me if you can, Brother,” challenged Kiwanuka,  gliding swiftly through the water towards  the platform in the deep.  Kiwanuka, the son of a local fisherman, claimed he could swim since infancy when his father deliberately dropped him in the lake. I did not believe him but he was an ace swimmer, indeed. He was a bright kid and had won a scholarship to our school. Bro. Richard rose to the challenge egged on by Suresh and me. The little African ran, or should I say ‘swam’, rings around the Canadian.  They must have swum several times around the platform and then Bro. Richard vanished. Kiwanuka stopped in the far distance by the diving tower to catch his breath. We could see his gleaming white teeth through his triumphal smile, his head bobbing with the platform.  In the next moment, like some great sperm whale, Bro Richard erupted from behind, grabbing him and then hurling him in the air and then grabbing him again and again.  Then there was a bit of a lull. We could not quite see them behind the diving platform for a few minutes. At last we saw Kiwanuka break away and swim to the shore at tremendous speed. Suresh & I clapped and cheered but he swam past us and said, “Let’s get the hell out of here!” He seemed upset.

We dried ourselves hurriedly. “What’s the matter Ki?”, I asked.

“Never mind! Let’s just get out of here!”

From the distance, I heard a familiar man’s voice say, “See you in Biology class next week!”. I turned and saw the smiling, waving figure of Bro. Richard. I waved back.

As we sped up the dirt road Suresh put his arm on Ki’s shoulder.  He flicked it off.

“The f****r’s a homo!”

“What’s a homo?” I asked.

“He was all over me. He rubbed himself against me and he put his hand in my trunks and grabbed me! He’s a f*****g homo!” He was in such a rage.

The following Saturday my friends and I got permission to go to the city to see ‘Gold Finger’. Of course, we’d lied and said we were going to see the vapid ‘Summer Holiday’ with Cliff Richard in it.

We traipsed off to the bursar’s office to draw some cash. I knocked first while my friends waited around the corner. Bro. Richard opened the door and, seeing me, beamed.

“Ah, you need some cash. Come in, come in,” he said ushering me thinking I was alone. At this point my gang piled in behind me.

From then on we would never approach this man on our own or swim in that lake when he was around.  The big, bad world outside was now with us.

About Des

Being on the wrong side of 60, I've recently become more conscious than ever that I'm closer to the end than the beginning. I don't mean this in a macabre way. Our presence here, as far as I can discern, is transient, ephemeral - as fleeting like a passing cloud. It occurs to me too that we each have a unique take on our time on the planet and it would be a shame not to put it down for posterity. When I try to think about what my grand parents, leave alone my great-grand parents, did, what their aspirations, fears, joys, loves etc were, I have no answer. It's a blank. Call it vain-glory, if you like, but driven by this thought I feel I should put something down on paper so that should my grand children ever ask, "I wonder what Grandpa did in the olden days of the 20th and 21st centuries?" some record of it exists. Memoir seems the way to do it.
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4 Responses to The Hands Of God

  1. Danny Graham says:

    Extremely vivid writing Des. I loved your character development, the initial innocence and the final line.

  2. Jude says:

    You have brought to life the student times in a college both the fun escapades and the more sinister happenings. Those high standing men who had such a profound influence on their students have much to answer for their less than Christian actions across the world. Many of these men are now being brought to acknowledge their actions in our Australian courts. You handled the details of this piece very well.

  3. terrysmith says:

    It all started in innocence, you took us through the change that happened, from victims to a gang that looked out for each other. A hard subject to write about you have done it so well!

  4. jabberwocky says:

    It’s a captivating story; it draws a very good picture of life and setting!

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