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The Disappearance of Me - Part I

Story ID:3035
Written by:John Ward (bio, contact, other stories)
Story type:Family History
Writers Conference:$500 2007 Family Memories Writing Project
Location:Manzini Swaziland
Person:Alan and I
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I have disappeared twice in the course of my life. I know: it sounds insane, but it’s quite true and I mean it literally.

I grew up in Swaziland, a small country in South East Africa. My town - Manzini, was tiny by today’s standards. All the streets were dirt and only in the late sixties did we get tar. That was limited to the two main streets going through town from Mbabane to Hlatikhulu. The only entertainment available to the small population was provided by a movie-house called “Giulio’s Cinema.”

Film had always been Brother Giulio’s department. An extremely accomplished factotum and Catholic friar, Brother Giulio would be approached by many people with a wide range of problems, from simple plumbing to advanced physics, from simple mechanics to complex structural engineering and Brother Giulio Moretti always managed to provide a solution. It just seemed to fall naturally to this Italian Monk to provide cinematic entertainment.

There had never been a theatre built specifically for showing films and all the British and American films imported to Manzini were viewed in Giulio’s carpentry shop, about a half a mile down the road from where we lived. By day this old building housed the heavy machinery one normally associates with industrial carpentry: lathes, planers, band saws, disk saws, etc., but come Friday evening the wood-workers would sweep all the sawdust and wood-chips into large bins to be disposed of later, in preparation for the Friday night film. Brother Giulio built a little six by five by five foot wooden projection room which was bolted to the rafters. A sturdy ladder led up from the floor to a suspended gangplank and this, in turn led from the ladder to the projection room, which housed the single 16 millimeter projector.

Traditionally, Friday night’s showing was for the more genteel, “50 cent” clients and Saturday night, the rougher “35 cent” element got to see the same film. Unfortunately that meant that there was usually a fight in the audience on Saturday night, complete with beer bottles, knives and clubs, with the result that if you missed the Friday showing for some reason, you risked your life to see it on Saturday. On the few occasions we attended the Saturday night free-for-all, we’d often find ourselves being herded up the stepladder by our parents onto the gang plank where we could watch, in relative safety, as the fighting would escalate and eventually be pushed out into the night by Giulio’s wood workers in their over-time capacity as ushers. Why the audience would break out into a free-for-all fight more nights than not was a mystery, just like the weeks of wailing and hysteria by the mixed blood women when Jim Reeves died in 1964.

I remember cool, dry, magical nights leaving the carpentry shop under a wide canopy of bright stars in a black sky. On several occasions, my mother would point out one star which seemed to move magically through the other stars. She called it “Sputnik.”

When the “New and Improved” Giulio’s Cinema was built, just down the dirt road from the old carpentry shop and right next to my cousin Alan’s house, everyone was thrilled. This was a real movie house, a theatre built for viewing films and the odd play. The Friday – Saturday crowd remained the same and the entertainment formula was the same although, interestingly, there were far fewer fights in this new and comparatively luxurious edifice. It seemed everyone felt constrained to behave in such splendid surroundings.

Although Giulio now had two 35 millimeter projectors to maintain cinematic continuity, the shows inevitably began with Pathe’ or British Movietone news reels, a cartoon and a “serial,” which was a story that never quite ended and you’d have to come the next week to see how the hero escaped certain doom the week before. Since there was no television and only short-wave radio, my father formed a small group of local businessmen that launched a local newspaper called The Times of Swaziland. This paper was very locally oriented and if one of its contributors fell ill that week there would be less paper to buy. So the Pathe’ and Movietone news corporations tended to be the sole source of international news.

After this array of entertainment, and just before the main feature, there would be an intermission and the audience would generally go to buy candy and colas from Brother Giulio’s assistants at a counter which displayed a wide variety of delicacies. There were Crunchie Bars, Flakeys, Smarties (copied and called M&Ms by the Mars brothers in America) and various other wonderful treats. There were drinks like Fanta, 7-Up, Coca-cola and Royal Crown cola. Brother Giulio didn’t put a premium on his sweets or cool drinks; he charged what the store charged and made enough to keep that aspect of the business worthwhile.

My cousin Alan is six months older than I am. At the time we were best friends and best enemies. We did everything together. We fought periodically with victory and defeat shared equally. We had daily routines and experiences we would share. For example we would meet at Alan’s house, which was next door to mine, every evening at five o’clock to watch the Rass children run naked out of the house across the street to avoid their bath time. It never ceased to amaze us that their mother would get her three little girls undressed for their bath every evening and then turn her attention away just long enough for them to escape and run down the dirt road screaming. We never spoke to them but we dearly wanted to learn their method of escape, having a similar aversion to cleanliness.

At about the age of eight, Alan and I decided to break into Giulio’s Cinema during the week, when it was dark, just to see if we could. We found that the only window without burglar bars was a tiny bathroom window on the top floor that no-one would ever imagine trying to enter. The building was about 35 feet high, as the theatre had a viewing balcony. Being small, agile an unencumbered by any morals, we decided that the drain pipe located right beside the window was an irresistible invitation.

Alan and I spent the morning going over our simple plan and on a bright sunny Wednesday we snuck out to the back of the building, on the other side of the building from the dirt road that ran in front of Giulio’s Cinema. With no climbing equipment, other than a vague genetic connection to primates, we began our ascent. The drain pipe was smallish and braced away from the wall by inch thick spacers making it easy to grip. Having already climbed at least a hundred trees between us, this ascent was fairly easy for both of us. The bathroom window was, fortunately, unlocked and lay open, braced by a slim, flat bar with holes which hooked over a small spike in the window frame.

With little difficulty, Alan and I got through the window and into the building.
Upon opening the bathroom door, as slowly and quietly as we were able, we discovered, to our delight, that we were standing in the intermission section on the balcony floor of the theatre. We hadn’t even considered that there might be a reward for managing to break in and here was a cornucopia of sweets, chocolates and cool drinks. None of the cabinets was locked, nor was the glass top counter. We couldn’t believe our luck! At our age kids seem to think that entitlement is a function of effort and give little thought to proprietary ownership. This seemed to be a gift from God and we did not want to risk His wrath by turning down His generosity. We ate as if we expected a famine, as if there were no such thing as a stomach ache, as if our islets of Langerhans were industrial strength insulin producers. Chocolate smudges were everywhere; on our hands and faces, on the counter, the walls, in our hair and, inexplicably, on the ceiling!

Just as we were starting to think we had died and gone to chocolate-face heaven, we heard the horrifyingly identifiable sound of a door unlocking loudly. We knew it was the watch-man, a Swazi Giulio hired to guard the theatre. Without trying to hide the evidence we broke for the side steps to the basement. There was no way to go down the main steps as they lead to the door which had just been opened. As quietly as two tiptoeing, chocolate encrusted scavengers could manage, we descended towards the ground floor and then towards the basement, leaving chocolate smears on the walls.

The theatre had a huge basement where Giulio stored lumber, paint and other hardware used for maintenance and as supplies for the carpentry shop. It was pitch dark down there. As our eyes became used to the dark we groped our way towards whatever hiding places we could find. I found a place on top of a stack of lumber which was stored in a hutch made from cement stanchions. It was easy to crouch there and the dark was an effective cloak.

We stayed very still, hardly breathing as we heard the watch-man walk around the ground floor. Then he opened the door to the basement. I was so scared I thought I would die. I actually tried to disappear. He switched on the light and light flooded into the room. He walked slowly and deliberately, like he knew there were intruders. I found myself fully exposed. I had underestimated my hiding place because of the dark. Finally the tension proved too much for Alan and he burst from his hiding place crying. Apparently he had decided to put his trust in his ability to generate sympathy. The watchman grabbed him by the arm and started to look more boldly, now that he realized he was dealing with children. To deflect a little of the man’s wrath Alan sort of pointed into the hutch in which I crouched trying desperately not to exist. I saw the man look in and look right at me! I didn’t move a muscle and he seemed to be looking through me! I was desperately trying to suck myself into myself. It felt like I was disappearing although the fear never left. He searched the entire hutch from the opening and didn’t see me! Despite the fact that the outside light lit the inside of that hutch very well, he took out a flashlight and shone it all around the hutch, which made me feel like he had a vague idea there was something there, but he never actually saw me! Even Alan dropped the crying act and looked completely confused as he peered in and didn’t see me.

Later, after the night watchman had left with Alan in tow, I climbed the stairs to the sweets counter, entered the bathroom, eased out of the bathroom window and shinned down the drain pipe only to be scolded and punished as Alan’s capture spread to my parents. However, the enthralling feeling of having been looked at and never seen stuck with me. It left me confused and wondering if I had a connection with the metaphysical. It was an experience that would be repeated a few years later.