The Captain's Hat

There is a board up at the entrance to the offices displaying epaulettes and hat brims once worn by all police officers. As these matching items ascend in rank, they have progressively more braid, stars and elaborate twirls. Pinned to a moth eaten piece of blue felt under smeared glass, they have long been gathering dust with the dead beetles and silverfish trapped behind the locked window.

Alongside each item are yellowed curling labels with 'Luitenant' and 'Kolonel' inscribed upon them. In the old South Africa, red-nosed men with beerboeps, beefy paws and names like Botha and Van der Merwe, wore these titles. That was when the SA Police was still a Force. But now, it is a Service, and we are in the new South Africa, so senior officers have titles like 'Superintendent' and 'Commissioner' and have names like Tshabalala and Maluka. They squeeze their ample breasts and cellulitic buttocks into tightly fitting royal blue issue.

The display under the cabinet has not been updated, though, so it is easy for a new recruit to be confused.

Whenever I run an errand for one of the band's captains, I scurry along, studiously avoiding eye contact lest I should see a senior officer and have to greet him or her. Panic sets in when I see epaulettes, because three weeks after my enlistment, I still can't recognise who -- but more importantly, what -- I am greeting. The band needed a flute player urgently, so they enlisted me before I went to POLCOL.

My education about Police Protocol has been gleaned in bits and pieces. Listening to the gossip and speculation of other new recruits (who must also still undergo basic training in Pretoria) has been my teacher.

I thought one was not supposed to salute an officer if he was not in full uniform. In fact, one should 'brace up' -- a gesture which resembles the leaping action one would perform were a carrot to be suddenly and firmly rammed up one's butt while simultaneously clutching one's shirt hem and looking sharp about it. The eavesdropping method of learning gives one an incomplete picture.

Yesterday, I was seated on the stairs outside the display board before a rehearsal. As I wrote my daily entry into my pocket book, a lady captain arrived in the company of an inspector. I was using my driver's license as a ruler to underline the date -- twice -- and balancing my flute case on my knee. My senior officers were, it seemed, deep in conversation and I noticed that neither wore hats. I assumed it would be acceptable to greet respectfully. Smiling pleasantly, I acknowledged her first and then the inspector.

"Are you a police officer?" she asked, looking at me over the top of her gold-rimmed sunglasses as if I were a lizard's tail she found in her sandwich.

"Yes, Captain!" I said, still with my proud smile stuck to my lips like phutu glued to the bottom of a pot.

"So why don't you salute?"

I leaped up -- clutched my flute case, thought better of pointing out that she was not in full uniform, dropped pen and pocket book, thought better of pointing out that I have not been instructed on the police protocol, let go of my driver's license, wished her horse flies breeding in her pumpkins -- and saluted with alacrity.

"Sorry, Captain," I said with my brightest smile.

"That's better," she smirked.

I later griping to Zibu, the fat tuba player, about the indignity I suffered at the hands of this puffed up fool.

"Oh, that one," he said with a knowing look, "she is a highly uneducated somebody!" He cleared his throat as if he had a bad taste in his mouth. "When Logistics was out of stock, we asked if she could lend us a hat for Thandiwe. She refused, on the grounds that someone would buy muthi from a sangoma and hide it in the inner hatband causing her to suffer headaches."

It is silkworm season right now. Every seven-year-old in Johannesburg has an abundance of pale wrigglers. It would be a small matter to slip some little friends from my son's perforated shoebox and transfer them to the captain's hat. It hangs on a coat stand near the photocopier.

But, I am afraid to do so. I'm not afraid of being discovered, nor am I afraid of impersonating a sangoma. I can't plot my silly revenge, because should even one soft white worm suffer an untimely death on the lady captain's well-oiled head, I might develop a rare and terrible allergy to silk. I could, perhaps, collect the tiny black droppings...

- - -

beerboep - paunch garnered from excessive consumption of beer
phutu - stiff maize porridge
muthi - herbal remedy used to heal or to cast spells
sangoma - witchdoctor

About the author:

Liesl Jobson is a policewoman and psychic. She is currently working in Soweto where she plays flute and bassoon in the South African Police Band, and will tell you your fortune in terms polite or otherwise... Her poetry and fiction have appeared in Literary Potpourri, Painted Moon Review, Burning Word and Gator Springs Gazette.