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Stealing a Ferrari

When I was six I spotted a little red Ferrari, a Dinky toy, on the playground of my school.1  It was during short break, in Winter, and it was freezing.  The frost had barely melted off the lawns and there was the Ferrari, all bright and red among the brownish-green.  I cast a quick look around and saw crowds of kids scurrying about and screaming as they do, so I picked up the Ferrari and calmly put it into my blazer pocket, quite unobserved.  I then milled around quietly in the daze of my windfall, guiltily tense.  A few minutes later the bell sounded for the end of break.  I walked steadily up the stairs as everyone ran back to class, chaos all around my calmness.  One boy was running around frantically, not in a beeline to class but from boy to boy, asking them something.  His haphazard desperation led to me.  “Boy, did you not perhaps see my little car”2  Panic and pallor riffled his face.  “No”, I replied, calm as a professional, the Ferrari firmly in my pocket.  He looked at me for a second, deeply, before desperation rushed his futile quest to the next boy, and the next.

Hmmm.  That was easy.  So easy.  I walked into class, calmly took in my lessons and then went home after school.  Into the back yard with my box of cars – dozens of them.  Out they came.  The Chevrolet, the Ford, the Buick, the ambulance, the front-loader, the grader, the combine harvester, the police car, the milk van, the Mini-Cooper, there they were, all mine, all lovingly given to me by Dad and my ‘uncles’.3  I traced a few smooth tracks in the sand with the edge of a plank and placed my cars in their positions.  I finally took out the gleaming new acquisition to my fleet – the red Ferrari.  Ha!  Let’s see this baby go!  I gave it a polish, put in on the track, held it by its sides, revved it up and…

Red Ferrari

Red Ferrari

Problem.  The Ferrari would not go.  What?  I looked at the wheels.  I investigated for blockages, a faulty spring, checked for a lodged stone, something.  Found nothing.  Pushed again.  It wouldn’t go.  I put it aside, played with the other cars.  They all went.  Back to the Ferrari.  It sort of went… then didn’t go at all.  Later that night, when my mother made me say my prayers, the Ferrari came parking into my mind.  It lodged itself there, crowding out everything.  And the next day.  And the next.  The Ferrari that never went dwelled increasingly within, I could just not shut it out.  The next Sunday morning Mother took me to confession as she did once a month or so.

Catholicism operates by leveraging guilt.  Excepting for the Lord Jesus, no-one is considered free from sin.  Man is born and lives in sin.  To breathe, practically, is a sin.  There are vast categories of sins; mortal sins, venial sins, deadly sins, unpardonable sins, eternal sins, original sin, sins of the flesh, sins of the mind, sins of omission …  The Catholic afterlife has a rich set of destinations into which steams of sinners are channeled.  There is heaven and hell, just like for Protestants, but there is also purgatory, and then there’s limbo, which remains the scariest of places for me.4,5,6  Mother Church is there to channel your soul to heaven by the grace of God, but for that, you have to be good, and you have to confess, confess – and repent.

The Sacred Heart Cathedral at the end of Aliwal Street in Bloemfontein is a cold fortress on Winter mornings.  Mother would make me queue in front of its confessionals every fourth Sunday or so.  Confession is a source of relief for most Catholics.  You are burdened with sin.  You go to confession.  You repent.  You do your penance.  You emerge disburdened.  But I never felt that way, right up to my last confession at age eighteen.  I felt anguish before confession, clutching shame during confession and enduring guilt after confession.

The confessional is no place for the weak, but I’ve never manage to convince non-Catholics of this.  They argue that it’s too easy.  They say you go into a box and you come out clean, free to sin again.  If only.

To a six-year old the confessional is a dark, scary place.  You open a heavy door to the diffuse light of a stained window of a little cubicle.  It shuts behind you, you kneel down on a wooden step, clasp your hands in prayer and bow your head before a crucifix affixed to a gauze mesh.  Behind the mesh in a satin curtain and behind that, in an adjoining cubicle, is the unseen voice of a man before which you quake.  The voice is big and you are small.  It falls on you from a height.  To this voice you must tell how bad you’ve been.

“Bless me Father for I have sinned, my last confession was one month ago, and these are my sins…”  I had my stock sins at the ready.  “I fought with my sister and pulled her hair, I didn’t listen to my mother, I didn’t listen to the teacher, I had not listened to anyone.  And I hit the dog, not too hard.  And oh I had fibbed.  These are my sins Father and I ask God to forgive me.”  Usually that was that.  I would be told to be good and that God forgave and loved me and I would be given a light penance and dismissed with a blessing after saying the Act of Contrition.  But this time was different.
“Are there any other sins my child?  Is any else troubling your soul?”

“No Father.”  Long pause.  “Are you sure my child?”  It’s as if he knew.  Longer pause.

“Yes Father.  The Ferrari won’t go.”

“What Ferrari won’t go my child?”

Then it all poured out.  And he went for me, oh he went for me.  Did I know that Jesus, who loves me and suffered for me and died on the cross for me doesn’t like me to do these bad things?  That God at that moment didn’t actually love me?  Did I know what bad things lying and stealing were?  Did I know the boy to whom the car belongs?  No it’s a big school and he is not in my class Father.  Could I find out?  If ever I spotted him I’d have to give it right back did I understand?  Yes Father.  This was a terrible, terrible thing I had done.  And he went on and on and on about this stupid little car that wouldn’t go.  He didn’t mention my sister’s hair or the dog or fibbing or my not listening.  No.  He focused solely, exclusively, pointedly, on dislodging the stuck Ferrari.  And he worked my case over.  How bad I had been, how I must never ever do it again, what a terrible, terrible thing it was I had done and on and infinitely on.  I died three deaths in that confessional.  Eventually, he gave me a punishing penance, not the usual short one.7  I was wretched for days.

I could never play with that Ferrari again.  But the Catholics had forestalled yet another criminal.  I emerged from that confessional not being able to steal the merest thing, even unto all the days of my life.

And that, gentle friends, is what this lapsed Catholic told his friend Kyle, a recent convert to high Catholicism, on this rainy New Year’s morning.  We slouched drowsily on my deck, rheumy remnants from the New Year’s revelries.  We had over-indulged.  The world was slow.  It was a good a time as any to discuss confession.  Kyle slurred as to how completely cleansed he felt after confession.  It was a source of solace to him, he said.  A dozen confessions would not rid me of my sins, I said.  Perhaps Kyle commits grander, more readily pardonable sins.

But sitting there, staring out with Kyle into the early morning gloom, I knew that if ever I were to regain my faith, it would be straight back to Catholicism with me, a two thousand year-old religion of tradition and ritual.8  A religion run by priests, those men in robes not allowed to marry, some of whom, whether pious or perfidious, shockingly like boys.  But most of whom set errant boys straight.

Anguishing over the episode once again, I went into a toy shop last week and bought a little Ferrari.  I was hoping that the Ferrari’s owner would have gone on to be a writer and that I would read a piece by him where he describes having lost a Ferrari on a Free State playground and that I would seek him out and give it back, but such redemption is never granted to us, not even in fiction.  So I went to Nazareth House and asked for a little boy to be brought out.9

“What’s your name boy?”

“Dumisani”.10

“I need to give you something.  I need to do this for myself.  You will never understand.  Look!  Will you play with it if I gave it to you?”

Dumisani and the Ferrari

Dumisani and the Ferrari

His face lit up and he nodded rapidly a few times.

Before giving it to him, I crouched and gave the Ferrari a little push.  It went.  Forty years later, it went.  It was a happy day for me.

ooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo

Notes:

  1. The President Brand Primary school no longer exists.  The suburb of Westdene gradually changed from a residential to a business district, leaving not enough kids in the area to feed into the school.  Today the buildings house the Free State Musicon.
  2. Afrikaans: “Boy, did you not perhaps find a little red car?”
  3. Not my real uncles.  Every well brought-up child in Bloemfontein had to address an adult male friend of the family by the honorific ‘Uncle’, whether the Afrikaans oom or the Portuguese tio.  The same went for ‘aunts’.  You got stern reprimands if your parents caught you not uncle-ing.Two things about this custom:  First, there were certain men, mavericks of sorts, that no child called ‘uncle’.  They swore at you the first few times you called them that and you quickly learnt to call them Koos or Oliveira like everyone did.  Everyone knew that these people fell beyond the rule.  Second, at a certain age – mid-teens perhaps? – society expects you to switch over to mister-ing.  But some people remain ‘uncle’ forever, like Tio Martinhs.  I can say without shame that I loved my ‘uncles’ more than my real uncle.
  4. Please do not put any store in my portrayal of Catholic theology.  It’s probably riddled with sin but it’s more or less as I remember it from my catechism classes.
  5. Definition, Purgatory: In Roman Catholic theology, the place where those who have died in a state of grace undergo (limited) torment to expiate their sins  Definition from wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn.  My understanding it that it is a place where you cleanse yourself by suffering as much as those in hell, but that you eventually graduate to heaven after an unspecified time, centuries perhaps.
  6. Limbo:  There is the limbo of the fathers and the limbo of infants.  At any rate, my childhood understanding of limbo is an infinite state of separation in which a soul drifts aimlessly forever in the void without pleasure or pain.  As someone who has come to accept the pained vicissitudes of living, the state of limbo totally freaks me out.
  7. Confession has the status of a sacrament in the Catholic Church.  The Seal of Confession binds the prelate to absolute secrecy even on pain of death.  Even the penitent, according to some theologians, is bound to secrecy; but the more general opinion leaves him free.  Appreciate, gentle friends, the extent to which I’m prepared to go to tell you things.
  8. I have been an agnostic since the age of nineteen.  I am neither proud nor ashamed of the fact.  No proselytising please.
  9. As it happens, Nazareth House is a Catholic Convent in the Cape Town City Bowl that looks after neglected, abandoned and orphaned street children.

To respect Dumisani’s privacy, the Sister at Nazareth House would not let me photograph his face.

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