José Migeul Pereira...
Matron Anna looks up from the chart to stare at the scruffy little boy. Six years old, dirty, ribs straining the thin skin. A lost kid found scratching around n the dustbins near the harbour. Like the others, the police simply dumped him at the Sao Tomè Children’s Home; the only option in Luanda. Matron Anna hates the city with its loose morals and poverty. Why did the Church send her here? Because of that incident with Father Abilio in Lisbon? And now she has to bear the burden of her sin forever?
She sighs. It wasn’t her bloody fault, was it? It was him! Dammit, she didn’t know… All men are the same – victims of what she calls lustful religious innocence. Abilio told the others she – Anna – was prone to sinful thoughts, that’s why she accused him. The posting to Luanda happened soon after, silencing her forever. Men…!
Some parents…she thinks, but doesn’t bother to finish the thought. It’s just that they breed and procreate and then simply abandon the results of their drunken lustful desires. It’s the men, of course. They’re animals with no sense of responsibility. And they make kids who have no chance. She snorts – even his second name is spelled incorrectly.
“Manuel!” Her shrill voice penetrates the thin walls of the children’s home. “They’ve found another homeless little bugger. Come here! Get him washed and see if some of the rags in that old box will fit him.”
The fact that he’s near naked disgusts her. He’s a boy, dammit! And boys grow up to be men, dammit! And men are the scum of the earth, damnit! As if she needs a reminder that this dirty little critter will be one of those one day…
Manuel doesn’t share Matron Anna’s hatred for boys and men. On the contrary, he loves them. Especially boys. Young boys. Innocent boys. That’s why he works at the children’s home. He knows about Matron Anna, of course; he even realises his appointment was maybe part of Matron Anna’s way to deal with her dislike of males. So what? She turns a blind eye as long as he sorts out the meals twice a day. Her revenge is his pleasure, after all…
The bathroom is a cubicle with a curtain and a pail and a basin. The pail is the toilet. The basin serves as the bath. There are no towels – just a brick of blue soap and a coarse brush. José Migeul Pereira will never forget that bath…
Three years later sees José slightly bigger but infinitely angrier. The weekly bathing sessions with Manuel and the constant ‘disciplining’ by Matron Anna have taught him to show no emotion – neither joy or sorrow. Making friends with the other children in the home has proved to be almost impossible. Most of the boys were sent out to the shoe factory every day, while the girls were used as beggars (amongst other things) in the city’s centre. At night they ate…and slept. José was singled out to work in the butchery that supplied the children’s home with the fleeced bones of the carcasses. This job, with it’s blood and gore and smell of dead meat, was singled out for the ‘least of the lessers’, as Matron Anna termed it. It was a simple barter deal – he works for free and Matron Anna gets the bones for their daily ration of soup.
The butcher, Mister Clemente Demetrio, is a large man with a flat, round face and kindly eyes. He usually sings when he prepares the cuts of meat. He has large ears, a small nose and huge hands. And…he actually likes his new helper. Something in the downcast attitude, the pitiful frightened look, caused the old man to soften towards the child. Miste Clemente, Josè finds out, is an incessant talker.
“Now look here, Josè, I know what happens in that home of yours. Matron Anna has quite a reputation in Luanda. That temper of hers…. But you know all about that, don’t you? I’m sure you do. How you poor children survive, God only knows. It’s wrong, of course, but what can a poor butcher do?” He spreads his arms wide, a look of genuine regret on the orb of his face. For once, Josè has to smile.
“I’ll tell you a secret. I’m not a Catholic. Don’t tell anybody, otherwise they’ll think I’m a heathen. But you know what? I believe. Sure, I do. Of course I do. There’s a God up there,” Josè’s eyes follow the thick fingers pointing at the ceiling, “and don’t think He’ll be happy with what He sees in that home. No sir, not happy at all. He’s a good God, little Josè, and He feels sorry for you. You can believe me, really. Matron Anna? Manuel? Hah! You’ll see. You wait. You’ll see. He works in mysterious ways, little Josè, mysterious. And He uses people in the most unlikely manner. He may even use you, who knows?”
A few days later Josè watches how Mister Clemente lifts a huge carcass from a hook, and asks him how he became so strong.
“It’s in here.” Thick fingers tap the bald head. “You must first become strong in here before your body knows what to do. If your brain tells you you are weak and small…why then, you remain weak and small. But if your mind believes you are big and strong, that’s what you’ll be. Don’t tell anybody, but that’s how lions started. They were cats, see? Then one day, an eeny-weeny bitty little cat,” two thick fingers show how small the cat was, “thought to himself – I want to be big and strong. You can see for yourself what happened.” The round face wrinkles with laughter. “Yes, that’s a secret. Don’t tell people Clemente tells you such things. People will say we’re both mad.”
Josè asks if somebody small, say like a little boy, could do big things if he thinks he can.
“You’ve been thinking? Good! I like children who think. It means they use their brains. And if you use your brain, little Josè, there’s nothing you cannot do. Nothing. Look at me – I used to sell newspapers. Now I’ve got a shop. How did that happen?” He taps his head again. “You understand?”
Yes, Josè nods. But what if your brain tells you to do something big? Maybe, even, something bad?
“Oh, you’ve been thinking about girls, little Josè? Girls? Hah! I like that. Let me tell you about girls…” And for the next fifteen minutes José Migeul Pereira listens to Mister Clemente’s summary of the art of romance and love.
But the butcher was wrong. José wasn’t thinking about girls at all. And Clemente Demetrio never worked it out, either. He simply thought the fire at the children’s home must have scared the little boy so much that he ran off. He even attended the funeral of Manuel, trying to look sad – but his only regret was that his small helper wasn’t there to listen to him talk and sing anymore.
And little Josè, knowing what he did, wouldn’t return to his only friend for a long, long time. Maybe, if he knew how much the old man missed him, he would have stopped on his way out of the city to explain.
But he didn’t stop. He didn’t explain. Couldn’t. His instincts told him to get away as far as possible. And that’s how it came to be that he trudged through the veld, for days at end, before he met Comrade Vasily, the Russian who ran the training camp in the woods.