The Big Read: Friend to more than penguins

26 August 2015 - 02:45 By Tom Eaton

A few days ago I was on the shore of a lagoon, peering down at what seemed to be thousands of tiny, dead crabs. The shells were no larger than my fingernail but most were perfectly intact, and I was wondering how the crabs had died when a hearty voice rang out."They've moulted!" said the voice. These, he said, weren't dead animals but rather learner-shells shucked off by growing crablets.I straightened up to stare at the owner of the voice as he provided a few more interesting facts about crustacean puberty. But I wasn't really listening, because I wasn't there. I had been transported to about 1987, and the prospect of my inevitable death.Back then, just before I reached my teens, I knew how I was going to die. It was all very clear and completely inescapable.It would happen around my 19th birthday, on hot sand under a shrub somewhere in Angola. A spectacularly stupid corporal with a mousy moustache would order me away on some chore, and I would stumble onto an Angolan soldier. We would both panic, our rifles nightmarishly tangled in straps and bits of uniforms, but he would pull his free more quickly. His lucky shot would nick a major artery in my neck. Nothing too painful: I would simply feel myself melting like an ice block dropped onto the sand. He would look down at me apologetically before he hurried away, and I would bleed to death, listening to the songs of disinterested birds and sobbing over the monstrous injustice of it.The scene was so clear because I had done my research. For years I had been absorbing the great anti-war literature of the 20th century, morbidly fascinated by the futility and scope of organised violence. By the time I was 10 I had no idea how to kiss a girl but I knew how boys died in wars. I played with toy guns and built Lego forts for plastic soldiers, but I knew that these were fantasies; that war wasn't medals and parades but rather eternities of wasted time and small bits of meat hosed off the floors of helicopters.I also knew that South Africa was fighting a war against Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and possibly Cuba and the Soviet Union, and that the war would go on long enough for me to be called up and snuffed out under a shrub.This information came to me not from books but from the nightly television news; a surreal pantomime where big-haired white people in polyester spoke calmly about limpet mines in post offices and pop concerts at Sun City.It's interesting to look back at those broadcasts now, to marvel at the shoulder pads and the painfully obvious propaganda, but for me they are also infused with childhood horror. They were my doomsday clock, counting down to that day in about 1996 when I would be murdered by the apartheid state.But every so often the clock stopped.It happened for only two minutes, perhaps once a week, but I was grateful for it. I'm still grateful.You never knew when it would happen. It might come after a handsome man with a perm had presented the latest Swapo body count, or before a piece about a beauty pageant in Bloemfontein. But when it began, it felt as if someone had opened the windows and allowed cold, fresh air to pour into a stale polystyrene Auckland Park studio.Now it was time to leave South Africa; to skim over a clean, wild ocean towards a distant island or a foundering ship. It was time to hear from Charl Pauw.Perhaps the Nats were trying to convince whites that they lived in a compassionate society. Perhaps someone at the old SABC had a penguin fetish. Whatever the case, there was Charl, with his kind, crinkled face lashed by sea spray, dangling from a helicopter; trying to get through his link while an angry gannet stabbed at his knee; shouting into his microphone as the South Atlantic wind moaned and a vast ship heaved into him.Slowly, Charl became my envoy to a wider world; someone who could slip beyond the suffocating confines of South Africa and show me places where stupid little corporals held no power to send me to my death.And now he was here, beside me on the beach, telling me about crabs; still filing a good-natured report on marine life.I was startled because it was so unexpected. But I think I was also caught off guard because in my mind he had always lived in a timeless, never-resolving news report about oceanic danger. His home was a pitching heli-pad. His friends were penguins.But now he'd made it home, and he had human friends, and I'd made it past 1996. It was wonderful. I wanted to tell him some of this, but it would have sounded mad. And besides, he was walking on, heading towards some distant flamingos...

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