Small town South Africa. The 1960’s. Rules govern social engagement. Black and white, Afrikaner and English, richer and poorer. Even in the smallest of towns a hierarchy of social stratification evolves and is reinforced with a blend of gossip and charity. And then there are those most ineffable mysteries of life: love, sex and death.
Such is the context of The Children’s Day by Michiel Heyns. At the heart of this Bildungsroman is Simon, a sensitive, intelligent boy charting his way through the machinations of childhood in the dusty environs of Verkeerdespruit. He is keenly aware that he is living in the heart of nowhere. But the books that are such a vital companion to this only child cannot even begin to answer the questions that his interactions with classmates and the curious behaviour of the adults around him continually raise. Simon is left with the impression that he is trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle without all the pieces.
The novel opens in the modest, relatively speaking, metropolis of Bloemfontein, where Simon, now 15, is attending Wesley College, a “second-rate” Methodist private school. The occasion of a tennis match between the boys of Wesley College and a nearby technical high school on a stifling hot December day in 1968 unspools a series of flashbacks that reach six years into the past and gradually move forward. Simon’s reflections are triggered by the unexpected, unwelcome appearance of a former classmate on the visiting school’s team – the awkward, epilectic Afrikaner Fanie van den Bergh.
From the time he first arrives in Verkeerdespruit, Fanie is a curiousity. His fits alarm his classmates and teachers, while his inarticulate, easy-going nature sets Simon off balance. He regards Fanie with a measure of contempt to which the latter appears oblivious. Yet Fanie is a constant source of surprise. When Steve, in his tight jeans and white t-shirt, roars into town astride the magnificent Matchless G8 bringing a touch of heroic glamour to streets of the sleepy village, attracting the adoration of the boys,and the fluttering of female hearts, it is Fanie who disappears on the back of his bike. The fallout resulting from Steve’s arrival marks the advent of Simon’s awareness that the world is full of joys and dangers that the adults around him allude to with the most cryptic references. Frustratingly alert to the innuendos around him, Simon is delightfully naive as only a child of the pre-internet era can be. I remember it well myself. As Simon admits:
“Though I was probably quicker than my contemporaries at fitting together apparently unrelated observations, I was hampered in my deductions by an almost complete ignorance of sexual matters. I had arrived, for instance, at the conclusion that kissing was both a much sought-after pleasure for oneself and a much-ridiculed weakness in others, and that adults were too old for it and children too young.”
By observing the parade of adults that passes through his home town, Simon’s glimpses of the outside world become broader, if not necessarily clearer. A teacher who takes harsh discipline in the classroom a step too far is sent away, a pretty young girl he assumes is a special friend abandons him for the school jock, a woman with a shocking past appears and breaks the heart of one of his favourite teachers. And then there is Trevor with his dyed hair and pink shirts who shocks everyone by shaking up the life of the stuttering shy bachelor postmaster and his mother, briefly redesigning the beehived heads of the local women before being run out of town once speculations about the true nature of his friendship with the postmaster spread. Again Simon is perplexed, though it is Trevor who first implies that he sees in the boy a likely kindred spirit. The only outlet he has for the really “big” questions that trouble him are his Saturday afternoons at the local soda fountain with Betty “The Exchange”. The cynical, unfortunately chinless, telephone operator entertains Simon’s queries but confuses him as much as she informs him – children, after all, are only allowed so much enlightenment in this era.
It is Fanie who, in the end, stands to call attention to the missing puzzle piece that Simon has been holding in his hand all along.
I have an affection for strong coming of age/coming out stories. This is one. Sexually Simon is a slow learner, a boy who is less in touch with his body than the more viscerally grounded if intellectually dimmer Fanie. He over thinks the world even though he encounters more than one adult male who recognizes in him an inclination that he has, at an early age, no context for. Today with the ubiquity of queer conversation, imagery, access to internet, resources and young adult novels that explore queer themes, it may be hard to imagine how isolated a child could be growing up in earlier decades. Some claim this is an argument for censorship or against realistic sex education in the school system. But that is a spurious argument. One could still grow up LGBT in a vacuum. Or worse in denial. Many of us did.
I grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s in conservative rural Alberta. My parents, like Simon’s were liberal, but, like my peers, there were so many facts of life we did not understand and would not have dared to ask. Especially if there was any inclination that our own sense of self was off the norm. Long before one could retreat to the wisdom of Wikipedia, our resources were limited. I will never forget when the word “faggot” started to appear on our radar, probably as 10 or 11 year-olds. We would scurry to our dictionaries to find only “A bundle of sticks or an unpleasant woman”. Somehow we knew that couldn’t be right!
With The Children’s Day Heyns captures all of the curious confusion of growing up smart, bookish and not quite fitting in. And he does so with a warm, understated humour. Through his perceptive, yet naive, narrator the wonder and mystification, shame and humiliation of adolescence are evoked with remarkable resonance. Like many coming of age tales this was also a debut novel. But first published in 2002 when the author was in his late 50s, this novel also marked the debut of second career as a writer and translator – one that is still going strong – an inspiration to the rest of us in mid-life with writerly aspirations.