by Eric G. MÃ¼ller
I was almost done spraying a blue, sickle moon on the concrete wall of the upper level of Senate House when I heard the shout â€“ more like a wild, guttural bark. Â Having uttered that savage war-cry, the night watchman gave chase. Â Both John and I jumped up and ran â€“ we didnâ€™t quite know where, but in the opposite direction of the hulk. Â At the end of the landing we pushed through a glass door and hurtled down the long hallway, lined with offices. Â I looked back and saw the colossal, African brandishing his lethal knobkerrie, his army-green coat flapping like giant bat wings on either side of him. Â His heavy boots hammered the floor like nine inch nails into the cross of our crime, amplified by the cavernous building. Â This was no joke; we hadnâ€™t anticipated this. Â It had never even occurred to us that we might get caught.
It had begun innocently enough, as we sat in the courtyard one morning, sipping coffee. Â Weâ€™d looked around and noted how ugly Senate House was, compared to the other stately buildings at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Â Every concrete wall was a drab grey â€“ no color anywhere. Â Weâ€™d change that. Â Armed with an arsenal of aerosol cans we returned late that night and spray painted a slew of pretty pictures all over the walls.
The next day theyâ€™d already assigned a crew to get rid of the paint. Â Later, while nobody was around, we stuck a crude poster onto the scaffolding: â€œPaint this place or weâ€™ll strike again!â€ Â As expected, nothing happened, and a week later we struck again. Â In the narrow a.m. hours of the night we returned and set to work, covering the walls with not so pretty pictures â€“ peace and anarchy signs, random and abstract shapes and forms. Â John, an art major, was dancing like a banshee in front of the walls, delivering bold movements, full of momentum and strength of line. Â My attempts were less successful, but I hummed along with the polyphonic hiss of aerosol, a Colt-Can in each hand, shooting color over the barren concrete. Â I was spewing the finishing touches on that sickle moon when our ecstatic act of idealistic, but misguided, vandalism got eclipsed by the aboriginal battle cry. Â Thatâ€™s when we saw him â€“ and thatâ€™s when we ran!
Intermittently, and above the frenetic polyrhythm of the wild chase, the giant guard bellowed, which sounded like a chilling invocation inaugurating a ritual killing. Â When I glanced over my shoulder he looked like evil incarnate â€“ a projection of our own culpability. Â Our hemorrhaged fear morphed him into a preternatural apparition, and the unleashed beast was gaining on us. Â His wrath fueled him on. Â He was as intent on catching us as we were intent on getting away. Â Coming to a stairwell we leaped down five, eight, ten steps at a time, holding onto the railing as we turned to race down the next flight of stairs. Â Luckily for us the stairs slowed him down. Â We reached ground level and were stopped by another glass door â€“ the only way out. Â In a panic I thought: what if itâ€™s locked! Â But it wasnâ€™t and we escaped into the shadows. Â We scampered into the dark and hid behind the auditorium. Â As soon as we heard his heavy footsteps and coarse panting we doubled back to the engineering department, on the west side of campus, opposite Senate House. Â After catching our breath in an alcove we made a dash for the M1 and crossed over the walkway to the parking lot on the other side, where we jumped into our waiting VW bug and sped off. Â Weâ€™d escaped.
Over the next few days we watched the expanded work crew scrupulously remove the graffiti, though they missed my little, blue moon. Â By now weâ€™d had enough of pursuing our beautification plan. Â Moreover, we felt a tad remorseful about our juvenile behavior â€“ especially in regard to the night watchman, whose time weâ€™d wasted through our delinquent behavior. Yet, we couldnâ€™t help but brag about our subversive exploits to our friends. Â Soon enough John and I settled down to serious work again and forgot the incident.
A few weeks later, while sitting in my favorite spot in the William Cullen library, overlooking the expansive library lawn, a fellow student approached and told me I was wanted by the administration. Â I was ushered into an office behind the Great hall. Â Of course, I intimated immediately what it was all about. Â And I admitted everything to the kindly old gentleman who questioned me from behind his hardwood, paper-crammed desk. Â It would have been futile to do otherwise; John had already confessed. Â An acquaintance of ours had split on us.
An on-campus court case followed and we were facing expulsion. Â Both John and I were about to graduate. Â We were only weeks away from the final exams. Â To lose everything now would be a catastrophe. Â We hired a law student to defend us â€“ it was his first case. Â The court proceedings were formal and drawn out. Â This was serious business. Â And in the light of the consequences our escapade seemed not only juvenile, but downright infantile.
In the end we got off with a hefty fine, which drained me of most of the money Iâ€™d saved for my trip to Europe (to escape the apartheid system and South Africaâ€™s military service). Â I paid it willingly, thankful that I could still graduate without forfeiting my degree. Â I wonder what the night watchman would have said had they brought him in to testify. Â The haunting image of him chasing us down the hallway still remains indelibly etched in my mind.