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“Just a drill” by Jen Thorpe

“Just a drill” by Jen Thorpe

Sometimes a shop window is a time machine.

I remember that some mornings a siren would sound. Our teacher, ordinarily calm and jovial, would stand quickly and in a stern voice begin to issue instructions.

‘Under the desks, now! No talking, everyone, under the desks. All of you. Right under. Remember, we’ve practiced for this before! Don’t talk. Don’t run. Just straight under.’

In a hullabaloo of screeching chairs and excitement, twenty or so ten-year-olds would move from our seats to hide beneath our desks where we were to stay until our teacher released us.

In KwaZulu-Natal, the air is thick as soup, warm in the winter and stifling in the summer. You can hang out your clothes in the morning and return in the afternoon to find they are no drier, just slightly hotter. Sitting behind the desks in the mid-summer heat left pools beneath your legs, your skin peeling as you stood. 

None of this mattered from beneath the desks, closer to the cool of the floor. There, we were trapped in time between instructions, a cacophony of children on pause. We were supposed to be quiet and make ourselves smaller, to look down. Curl into ourselves like snails. Brace.

Down there on the floor, a whole new world was revealed. Old initials and chewing gum pressed into the wood of our desks and hardened into unmovable warts were signposts of the children who had occupied our spaces before. Tom loves Jane, Rick is a dick, and that type of rebellious predictable scrawl made by a young person who has just graduated to using scissors without supervision. 

From beneath the desks it was also possible to see how ordinary they were. Wooden with metal legs that curved beneath them. From above, they were treasure chests, opening to reveal caverns with perpetually musty air where we could store Valentine’s cards, secret sweets that we’d smuggle into our mouths during class, the black notebooks that we weren’t currently using, our space cases, and excess stationery.

From beneath the desks our chairs looked cartoon-like, more similar to drawings than the actual thing. They were tiny and with legs made of a pungent metal that smelled like a nose bleed. They had painted plywood backs in gaudy bright colours. If you were unlucky and got a ‘reject’ chair, bits of plywood would stick to your uniform when you stood up, in winter your jersey might crackle with static.

Waiting on the yellowing linoleum floor, we fidgeted, silently telling each other stories of fear or delight with just facial expressions. Some picked their noses. Eye contact would only set us off in giggles, prompting our teacher to issue further whispered commands.

After some time had passed, a siren would go again, and our unfortunate teacher would have the difficult task of re-establishing old order in the new chaos. Crisis averted.

Most times she would succeed in quietening the din and continuing with a lesson on Ancient Mesopotamia or how to do an oral in front of the class or we’d return to our reading or work. Sometimes the Principal would pop her head in, ostensibly to check if we were alright, though not many words were said. She’d just nod, or smile, and close the door again. Things would return to normal until the break bell would sound and we’d spill out onto the playground to eat hotdogs in soft white rolls, the bread sodden from the sickly-sweet vibrating-red tomato sauce.

I had forgotten all of this until I caught sight of one of those wooden desks walking by a furniture restoration company in Cape Town a few months ago. The shop was closed, but through the window I could see that the desk was just the same as I remembered. I wondered instinctively what was carved beneath it, who had sat there and what they had stored. It was so tiny that, looking down on it with my face pressed against the window of the closed store, it seemed unlikely that I could ever have fitted beneath it sitting, never mind crouched down.

Strange, I suddenly thought, that nobody ever asked why our teacher wasn’t underneath her desk. Hers was much thicker and sturdier than ours, real wood, possibly. Why hadn’t we asked why she wasn’t afraid of the bombs that we were supposedly hiding from?

The small farm school I attended from age ten to 13 had around five hundred pupils. It was a twenty-minute drive from our home through lush vegetation, if we were in time, or a fifteen-minute quick drive along the highway, if we were running late. 

It was an ordinary school, or at least not extraordinary – double or perhaps triple story. We wore a chequered blue uniform and black Toughees which I inevitably withered in the first rainstorm of the year by splashing in the puddles. In our school hall, we sang the school song in every assembly, describing the landscape and location (‘stands proudly between sugar farms’) the ethos (‘serves the community day by day’) and a bunch of other things. When we did the prayers, some of the children were allowed to leave because they didn’t believe in all that jazz. My sister and I didn’t either, really, but we stayed anyway. We were apathetic agnostics, torn between our paternal grandmother’s Catholicism and our maternal grandparent’s atheism. It seemed safest to stay, if only to ensure our bounty of future Easter eggs and Christmas presents.

School lasted from 7.30 am to around 2 pm and we seemed to spend almost as much time on breaks as we did in the classroom. Sometimes after school, there was sports. I swam in summer, played netball in winter. I opted out of cross country and athletics, unimpressed by the red dust between the sugar cane, my land legs unfit for speed, and chose, instead, to hand out the Super C’s from beneath the shade of the umbrella at the finish. The library was well stocked with books, and there was even a computer lab where we learned how to play a rudimentary mathematical game called Lemonade Stand, running a small lemonade-selling business in the town of Lemonsville, calculating our profits and losses on the black and green screen.

People’s parents came to parent-teacher evenings, there was a scholar patrol to help us cross the road, there was an annual Grade 7 performance, we sang in a choir, there was even a school campout that was held indoors in the school hall. Our design and technology teacher had a little bit of an obsession with the red tubes of Ponal Glue (we once made plaster of paris heads to fit on the end of our pencils and cut off bits of our own hair to adorn them, everything glued together with Ponal).

It was all very ordinary.

Of course, there were risks. Sometimes boys broke the bottoms off of their clear plastic pens and shot spit balls of paper at each other in class. Sometimes girls formed elite clubs made up of the zodiac and only allowed one representative of each star sign to join. Marbles were banned (the big ones, goonies, were considered potential weapons at the end of a tough competition when you had a temper), spinning tops too (the sharp points, perilous). There was a space between classrooms on the bottom floor of the building that we called ‘the open space’ where sometimes kissing competitions happened. Then they bricked it in en route to building more classrooms but not getting there before we could rename it ‘the closed open space’.

None of this warranted hiding under our desks. None of this implied a bomb.

Yet, the bomb drills were as much a part of our lives as lining up in height order in our grades in gendered rows and having our names called. We did what we were told and believed our teachers knew what they were doing, or that whoever had told them to do this knew. Someone had to have thought it through, our childhood reasoning went. I don’t think we even knew who we were hiding from.

It’s hard to understand now why anyone thought it was a good idea, from a structural point of view. Looking down at the desk through the window of this furniture repair shop, twenty-six years later, and imagining what the impact of a bomb might actually be like, it seemed like we’d all been doomed to die beneath the humid rubble.

It was the mid-nineties – we listened to Nirvana and Bon Jovi and danced slow dances at house parties with parental supervision. During the holidays we walked long distances by ourselves from our apartment to the beach, where we’d spend hours sitting on the sand or swimming and eating hot chips from the hotel down the way. The hotel had a jukebox and a downstairs bowling and alley and pool table and someone would always have money to play ‘How do we sleep when our beds are burning.’ On rainy days we’d stay in at friends and watch movies on a VCR and eat popcorn and two-minute noodles.

My parents had just got divorced, my mom was starting out in her first jobs and we were struggling financially. I was trying to adjust to my new life, to having my sister at the same school as me, to the heat.  It can’t have been easy, surely. But when I think of this weird liminal time I am overwhelmed with nostalgia.

The desk in the window of the store transported me back, but the sound of the Cape Town traffic reminded me of my present. Stuck between these two versions of myself I called someone who knew them both – my friend of twenty five years.

‘It wasn’t a bomb scare. It was terrorists!’ she said, adamant. ‘We were hiding from gunmen. That’s why we had to get under our desk, so that it would be harder to shoot at us through the window.’

‘Gunmen? Did we ever have a singular gunman at our school?’ I couldn’t recall one, never mind a group of them. ‘Plus, we were on the second floor. Are you saying these gunmen would get in through the gate, past the secretaries’ offices, run along the corridor, up the stairs, and then choose a classroom at random, look in and think, oh well, there are no kids here, just a teacher standing up at the front, better go home and try again tomorrow?’

‘Don’t be absurd,’ my friend laughed, and I laughed too because it seemed clear to me that there was no other way to be, given the circumstances. How could we have spent time hiding from bombs and guns, and then an hour later, run around a field chasing a soccer ball and hoping nobody would ankle tap us?

‘I still can’t see how it made sense, gunmen, bombs or otherwise. And who decided?’ I asked

‘Decided what?’

‘Who told the teachers it was just a drill? They must have known otherwise surely they’d have been crapping themselves underneath their desks too, not standing up at the front watching us hide, shooting the breeze.’

‘Obviously they told them.’

‘They who?’

A silence. Was it something that each school decided by themselves I wondered in the lull, or did the Departments of Education in each Province make rules? Was there one siren for a drill and one for the real thing? Who pressed the button to make the siren go off, and would they die if the threat were real? Wouldn’t successful terrorists know to go there first, to prevent the siren at all?

My friend continued, as though adding more detail would make any of this sound more understandable.

‘And other times, I think it was for fire drills, we just went out onto the field. Don’t you remember – it would be sweltering and we’d all almost die of heatstroke.’

That too was gone from my memory, likely melted away. Just imagining it made me want a cold drink, a purple Fanta, something I haven’t drunk for years. My friend and I paused, comfortable in the silence, both hearing the other thinking but not the thoughts.

‘I just can’t see how this all could have happened, and we didn’t ask what was going on. Did we just go home and never mention it to our parents? Did they already know?’

Having known my friend for more than two decades I could picture her shrugging one shoulder up to the phone ear, playing with her hair. I went to bed, unsatisfied.

‘Not brown people’ a former colleague said at our lunch a week later, eating salad at a French restaurant a few hundred metres from Parliament. ‘There is no way they made us do that.’

We were just around the corner from the furniture store, and being reminded of the topic again, brought it up.

‘Not at all? Like you were never under your desk?’

‘Maybe we had fire drills but definitely not bombs.’

She grew up near Athlone in Cape Town. My memories were from the North Coast of KZN. Could that be it – a matter of geography? 

‘It was swaart gevaar man,’ she said, sipping her sparkling water and eating a fresh piece of fennel. ‘Obviously.’

I had begun to wonder if this might be the case this since the conversation with my childhood friend and a snap WhatsApp poll amongst friends of all demographies revealed answers that matched this probability. It seemed the most likely explanation.

We ate our salads and continued with our normal catch up, a small stone of something sitting in my chest.

She messaged later that evening after asking her older sister.

‘No bomb drills for them. My sister laughed.’

My school friend forwarded me a voice note from another high school friend of hers. White, from a different area of KZN. They’d also done them. The explanation had been terrorists. Case closed, it seemed. 

The mystery of the whole encounter started to dim. It seemed that I had just been a white child in a racist society on the brink of change and had been brainwashed to hide under my desk like that would stop democracy. Joke was on me. During my politics degree we’d read and talked a lot about the ‘third force’ and the created violence of those end-of-apartheid-early-democracy days. At that time, I had searched my memory trying to find signs that I’d been aware of this, and there had been nothing.

Now a tiny wooden desk had sparked that peculiar shame you feel from doing things as a child that you wish you had never done. A blush that starts inside you. A weight beneath your breastbone.

My book club’s WhatsApp group disagreed, some remembering these drills from long before the demise of apartheid, others from areas that were affected by the violence of the early 90s and were told particular narratives, their threats given names and faces and political parties. The shared element was fear, fear of the unknown, of the other, of change. The agents of that fear were teachers, because as children we had just brushed it off as a normal part of our day. Nothing to worry about, really. 

At least, I thought, that shit doesn’t happen anymore. We can take solace in that.

Later that month I travelled across the country for a friend’s baby shower. I was reluctant to return to the heat of the coast, to feel my clothes stuck to me and revealing my body without my permission. Sitting back, fanning myself to stay cool, I talked about the desk to the women gathered around cheese platters and carrot sticks, sipping cordial, plotting birth dates on a calendar and guessing at names. The weight of this story and its telling of how complicit we all were felt wrong to share, but it pressed out of me before I could stop it.

‘Why didn’t we ask? What did we believe?!’

I laughed, exasperated by all of us. Nervous. Uncomfortable. Another member of the group sat down opposite me, asked what we were talking about. I explained the story.

‘Oh, but we had one just the other day?’

‘A bomb drill?’

‘No, a bomb scare.’

Is this shit still really happening? 

As it turned out, an old woman had left her handbag behind at a place of worship, and, paranoid or prepared, depending on who you ask, the leader of that religious institution had called the bomb squad. They had then called the school, who had put on their siren.

 ‘What happened? Did you get under your desks?’

In the split second before she answered I wondered if they still did that, whether the floors were still linoleum, whether the chairs still caught on winter jerseys and stuck on summer legs.

‘We’d actually never practiced before, so we just all went to the field. Then it turned out we were on the side of the field close to the potential bomb, so we all had to go to the other side of the property’ she said, as if it had been nothing.

‘So, no desks?’ 

‘No, but at least we’ve got a protocol now. The kids were terrified. We obviously couldn’t tell them.’

‘What will you do next time?’

‘We’ll stand in the corridors.’

‘Oh.’ I didn’t know why I felt disappointed.

The drill for fear is the same as the real thing, your body doesn’t fully know the difference. There is a warning, the adrenalin comes. If you are an adult, you must act natural. Protect the children. Tell them nothing. Stand still, smile. Put fingers to mouths and wish it all away.

Jen Thorpe is a feminist writer and researcher based in Cape Town, South Africa. Her first novel, The Peculiars (2016), It was long listed for the Etisalat Prize for Literature (2016) and the Sunday Times Fiction Prize (2017). Her second novel, The Fall, was published in July 2020. Thorpe has edited three collections of feminist essays – My First Time: Stories of Sex and Sexuality from Women Like You (2012); Feminism Is: South Africans Speak Their Truth (2018) and Living While Feminist (2020). Find out more via

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