Fish Breath

As a good ol’ Catholic family, I did what all good little Catholic school girls do and attended St Augustine’s Primary right on the doorstep of the only Cathedral in Port Elizabeth. The nuns were no longer when I attended. But believe me, there were enough old bats left who preferred the wooden ruler over the carrot method.

Now, that’s not to say I didn’t have many a wonderful teacher during my time there. And the principal, well, she was just about the loveliest woman I’ve ever known. I for one counted myself lucky if a crime committed got me sent to the principal’s office. “Oh, Jocelyn, what have you done now?” she’d ask with a sigh. I was not naturally a disobedient child and it usually involved some or other classmate provoking me to the point of retaliation (and I had then and still to this day, a sharp edged tongue when it’s time for fisticuffs!). “Well, I suppose I’ll have to punish you.” Two taps on the palm with as little enthusiasm as she could muster, her ‘punishment’ was doled out. Then away you were sent back to class, feigning a guilty conscience.

But there were two teachers. A formidable duo. Let’s just call them Mrs X and Mrs Y. Mrs X was my Sub B teacher. And Mrs Y my Standard One teacher. Today I’d have called them my Grade Two and Grade Three teachers. Cruel to the bone they were. And of course, all in the name of beating disobedience out of a bad child, and all in the name of God. As I’ve said, I wasn’t a disobedient child. In fact, I’ve generally always liked to stay out of harm’s way, do the work that needs doing, and was always top of my class in primary school. Diligent and hardworking. And quiet.

But even Mrs X had a turn with me when she told me to stop talking in class. I politely informed her I’d simply yawned. Perhaps a little taken aback that I would dare defend myself (or that my yawning no doubt implied I found her ‘activities’ dull and tedious!), I was instructed to come to her desk at the front of the class and to step quickly for my knuckle-rapping. “Best you put up your hand next time you yawn,” I was told, before a wooden ruler was turned on its side to give me a swift few turns.

Of course, while Mrs X may have had her moments, in the end she was simply the playmate who laughs on the sidelines, gleefully, at the antics of the real bully, Mrs Y. Mrs Y was the main culprit. A tyrant who ruled with iron fist. No two ways about it. In her finest hours, not even the knuckles would do. A slap through the face of the child in question was called for, yet again I’m sure in the name of God and all that is holy. (I’ve heard subsequently that Mrs Y has passed on and all I can say is I hope she got a good beating when and if she made it to those Pearly Gates!)

But unlike so many of my fellow classmates, Mrs Y adored me. Mrs X had already taught me a lesson or two in keeping my mouth wired shut and staying absolutely out of trouble. Many of my compatriots were not so fortunate. Many of them were pretty hard done by in life, and as such acted out. It also didn’t help that they were prone to tattle-taling on each other. As for me, I was never a snitch. If there was business about, it would be settled in due course on the playground at break-time. There was only one way in which Mrs Y did us all the greatest of disservices, myself included. Kreols chips were banned in her class.

Oh how I loved my Kreols!

“Seafood Flavoured Maize Snack” the packet read.

I took it all at St Augustine’s… The panty inspections for the girls after each and every assembly, as the boys filed out and the allocated female teacher took the time to look under our skirts to ensure that, yes, our panties matched the navy school dresses. (And what awful panties they were! Available from the Birch’s school shop in Rink Street only, these navy blue panties that dug into you with their tight elastics. Urgh.) At special religious assemblies, I stood in line as one by one we marched forward to kneel and kiss the statuette of Jesus on the cross. (I had the unfortunate habit of always lunging a little too far forward and bumping my head on His.) I tried my utmost and applied myself to needlepoint even though it bored me to tears and I envied the boys their woodwork classes.

But no Kreols! I was inconsolable. They soon went off the market and perhaps teachers like Mrs Y are to blame for this. As if we didn’t have it worse off, dealing with the lingering odour of bitterness and decay on their own breaths… Dinosaurs that they were of a bygone era trying to get each and every beating in that they could with their surprising strength for all that they may have looked wrinkly and frail and seemed to shrink with each passing year.

Oh well. Fond times.

It’s since come to pass that Kreols have made it back onto the market, all these years later. But I’m hesitant. I rented The NeverEnding Story once for some kids I was babysitting and I saw the movie through their bored and tired eyes. Some things I’m afraid, belong to childhood, and there they should stay, in that dust-moted haze of nostalgia for days that were, for trees that were climbed, wishes that were dropped with pennies into wells, and chips that tasted like an island getaway, of a place where the ocean’s bounty was always fresh, somewhere far, far away.








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