I was 16 when I first attempted to take my own life. I was seeing a psychiatrist (he of the Einsteinian-hair, he had studied at a university in Vienna, his son went to the same high school my brother went to, the highly-prestigious Grey High School for Boys) at the time who was convinced that Risperdal could help me, elevate my mood. I was depressed, very, very depressed. I drank some red wine, and took some pills, and slept it off. There have been other attempts.
Anti-depressants, counselling, psychiatrists, a coma, psychosis, hallucinations (some auditory), but there also have been periods of intense creativity. The psychotropic medication seems to have not impacted my imagination, only my dopamine and serotonin levels. I felt down a lot in high school. I had no one to eat lunch with. One friend.
Every year I had one friend. One black friend. I got tired of being tired (they call it chronic fatigue syndrome). Sometimes I thought I was just pretending. That was why I was attracted to acting in the first place.
I didn’t have to be me anymore. I still think at 40 what people think of me, I’m still dying for my mother’s approval. There were crushing-and-numbing lows that felt like a succession of deaths, clinical depression, insomnia (I found it very difficult to fall asleep, would toss and turn the entire night listening to my parents fight behind their closed bedroom door, I read into the early hours of the morning with a torch under the covers). I’m fragile. I was abused mentally, verbally, physically by my mother for most of my childhood.
Later she isolated me from my so-called friends, from so-called family, and then rejected me because of the texture of my kinky-peppercorn hair. In her words I was an “wretchedly-ugly mistake”, who was “nothing special to look at”, “an intellectual like your father”, “take your smarties yet”. According to my mother, for years, I did not have a mental illness (see bipolar mood disorder), I was demon-possessed and needed prayer.
High school was difficult for me. I was bullied, and I was a bully. I was an obsessive-compulsive perfectionist, a high achiever academically but after the first two years of high school my grades started to slip). You would think that this would have been a warning sign for either my mother, or my manic-depressive father, who was also an over-achiever as I was. So, I felt pain every day, no one was pulling me through this pain, I hardly could get out of bed in the morning, there were no romantic entanglements with boys my own age (which meant no heavy petting, French-kissing, making out, distracted by sex, boyfriends, or popularity), no girlfriends who came to the house, no experimenting with the smoking of cigarettes. I decided I as an atheist, although I still went to church with my parents, and my siblings, my younger brother, and sister. I can’t put all my happy memories, and my childhood, and my elegant and narcissistic mother in a time capsule. I have the same nose like my mother.
My mother thought the obvious, it was drugs. I was smoking marijuana.
It was my peer-group. I was hanging out with the wrong friends. She blamed anything, everything, everyone, family, estranged family, cousins, except herself. I take tranquilisers at night to sleep, fall asleep watching television. Then there are my sleeping pills, my father’s sleeping pills, my aunt’s sleeping pills. Then there’s Pax, Lithium, Zolnox, Arizofy, Puricos for the gout, Puresis, the water tablet, for my chronic kidney disease. It seems that all I’ve seem to do for most of my life is take pills to make me happy, scale the seawalls of the depression, but it is seeming, writing keeps finding me, and I keep finding writing. Books, plays, novellas, poetry, essays, and blog posts. I was a teenage runaway. Sometimes I’m stressed out. I know how to deal with that kind of currency now. I’m still insecure. I’m like the most vulnerable person I know. I can’t turn back time.
I ran away to Johannesburg, and then to Swaziland, and wanted to go to the London Film School when I was 16. I’m designer playwright, keen diarist, hooked on becoming a memoirist, and inspiring ideas when I’m found hibernating in my room, lying in the foetal position on my bed listening to music blaring from my radio, and yes, I’m still running, carrying the cross. I’m only happy though when I’m a failure. I’m only unhappy when I’m adding another accomplishment, onto an already full list of accomplishments. Acting my heart out on the stage, drama rehearsals at the Opera House, lead role in the house play, Quiz, editor of the school newspaper, swimming laps in the local Gelvandale Olympic-sized swimming pool etcetera, etcetera. The everlasting list goes on, and never-ending on. I make money out of writing now.
I’ve lived with the naming, the shame-and-blame for all of my life.
Whose fault was it that I was abused, or that I was molested as an adolescent, or that I was too trustworthy of men in positions of power, and thought that every female that I met was my friend. Last year, I baked a cake for my birthday. It was the most beautiful cake in the world. I decorated it with mini-meringues and African violets, but nobody touched it, put it past their lips. And so, my 39th birthday collapsed, fell to pieces around me. I cut out recipes from magazines, and in the kitchen, I have this burning desire, this burning search to be chef, and baker. I sleep with cookbooks next to me on my bed. And like the high priestess of soul, Nina Simone, or the actress-celebrity Dorothy Dandridge, Oprah Winfrey, Misty Upham, you can only bury your thoughts, your shame, the people that you hold responsible for not loving you unconditionally, or protecting you.
Or nurturing you, or saying that they were proud of you, you can only bury your feelings for so long. So, now I write about the stigma, the bipolar struggle, the anxiety and fear that depression brings up inside of me like a storm, and you will usually find me crying in the dark, stifling my sobs into my pillow at night, dark is the night, winter has moved on, and I shy away from autumn, I’m battling survival, my survival, and I’m so well aware of the women who have not lived to fight another day (Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Assia Wevill, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Donkin, Iris Chang, Petya Dubarova). I’m battling daily. There are days that I feel deceived with burning desire by every single man, woman, and child that I encounter. I think of my happy childhood memories. I think of my sadness, my introspection, my reflections that mirror my soul. Sometimes a certain smell will take me back to childhood. Usually my mother’s perfume.
YSL’s Opium. To this day, that perfume gives me flashbacks.
Sometimes, just sometimes I think of the love of my life touching my face, and then I see him walking away from me in a parking lot, and I smile at this memory. I smile at the injustice of it all, that a man had loved me after all, and I ask myself, do you want even more heartache, more pain, more despair, then tell him that you love him back, that you only live for him. I smile at the memory of Ted Hughes, and Sylvia Plath, because after all he chose her to be his wife, and the mother of his children. Weddings are happy occasions marked by pomp and ceremony, and the happiness, and difficulties of both bride, and groom. It hurts too much on the inhale of the howl, and inside I’m a philosopher in the tradition of Nietzsche, and inside I’m a preacher. And sometimes, just sometimes the history of the bipolar, the madness life, the life that I live on my terms hurts too much on the exhale. In the bathroom mirror I write the narrative of love to myself.
There is a link between creativity, and mental illness, genius, and madness, and then I think of my extraordinary achievements, of my father’s giftedness, my mother’s own capacity for spells of melancholy, and giddy happiness, her talent for flowers. I see things that other people can’t. I hear things that other people can’t. I can’t turn back time to the good old days. I have moths, and butterflies, and swallows, and birds in my stomach, a reputation, an angel-tongue in my mouth. Love has passed me by. I made a conscious decision not to marry, not to have children, but it didn’t make me less unafraid of the world around me. I made a conscious choice not to experiment with illicit drugs. I don’t drink. And, yes, I thought the love of my life, and I would live the years together, from the infatuation-phase to the honeymoon-phase. It is better to have loved, and lost, than never to have loved at all.
I have tried to take my own life four times now. I have relapsed more times than I can care to remember, but I still believe in the inter-communicative, inter-related, grassroots-secret of longevity. I love life.
The way out of apartheid South Africa
Miss Gilbey taught Speech and Drama. Every Friday afternoon as the car speeded down the highway en route to her studio cum house I would learn a poem about ducks or gypsies parrot fashion. As my mother or father said the words out loud to me, I would recite them back verbatim. I was six years old fashioning a posh, whitey English accent with clipped tones that did not win me any friends back at the school I went to and especially on the playing field during break. I was six years old. I had not begun to straighten my hair yet to look like the blonde, horsy looking with long teeth, fair or dark, golden-haired, freckled, hockey and tennis playing children who had names like Miranda who joined me when I started going for lessons. She drilled, ‘Speak with expression, expression, expression into me.’
The first thing I noticed is that they weren’t self-conscious like me.
They were brimming with confidence, made friends easily while I had to battle with bullies who mocked me by imitating my voice that was beginning to change at the predominantly coloured school that I went to. The first time I went to Miss Gilbey’s studio I went with my mother who was taking elocution lessons but she stopped soon after taking me. I sat there, in a corner on a bench, my back against a cool wall, felt in my pocket for the candy my mother had given me and started licking away at a red lolly that tasted like cherry making what my mother told me afterwards in the car were ghastly sucking noises that perturbed the dear old Miss Gilbey.
Every now and then I would catch her looking at me and I would smile at her. She never smiled back. Her eyes felt like laser beams when they connected with mine. I felt them keenly. Only later on the way home with my mother scolding me for bringing that sweet inside with me would I realise that I had been very irritating like only a child could be; completely oblivious to what the grownups around her were thinking without being told that she had done something wrong. Later on when I had moved onto Sharon Rother’s, a past pupil of Miss Gilbey who had done her licentiate, Speech and Drama studio in Walmer, which was held in a room adjacent to a church, Miss Gilbey also moved on.
She moved all the way to Montagu with her sister who suffered from bad bouts of asthma. The air there would be good for her, I reckoned. Two women living on their own for most of their adult life; when did they ever come into contact with men, I wondered? In the aisles of a supermarket when they shopped for groceries going down a long list of perishable items? Did a man ever call Miss Gilbey ‘a good girl’ or ‘you’re a beauty, sweetheart’, wink at her, put his arm around her waist and walk with her for awhile while asking her what her name was (her name was Marjorie and I couldn’t ever imagine even if I tried very hard now that any man, even a brazen man or a boy could call her by her first name) and where she lived and would she like to get a bite to eat.
Perhaps some hot tea and a steak and kidney pie with gravy in a restaurant at a hotel. The English men I had been taught by were gentlemen. They were quiet intellectuals, academics, teachers, soft spoken lecturers at universities and introverted and bookish.
What did the life of a spinster feel like? What did the life of an unmarried woman who did not have to cook for a husband, a small child or children, who never hovered and cooed over a crib of a pretty new-born baby? What did a woman over fifty who was past the age of flirting, the cunning moves of seduction do for fun? Did she attend church, bible study with other young women; serve tea at the end of the Sunday morning service with crumpets and sandwiches made with fish; pilchards and sardines or cheese and tomato or egg with dollops of mayonnaise or chicken, wilting lettuce and mayonnaise, cakes, petit fours, biscuits made with coconut and almonds all laid out on tables with white table cloths?
Was that the appropriate behaviour for a woman her age, a lady? Had there ever been a man in her life? In the time I imagined when she was young had she ever corresponded with a young man writing letters filled with lover’s nonsense that only made sense to them, not to the outside world. Did they write about their unfolding passion, their wonder at their innocent love, the madness of the war, the burning houses, flames licking attics, bedrooms, roofs, charred flesh, bodies burnt beyond recognition?
Did they write in code, draw entwined hearts made out of paper? Did she ever seal the letter with a wet, crimson kiss that peeled off her lips or did she ever put her feet up in the afternoon and watch the soaps as a middle-aged woman or quiz shows as a girl?
Did they even have a television now in South Africa? I knew Miss Gilbey didn’t do that because she gave Speech and Drama lessons every afternoon during the week. I was the only coloured child amongst whites. But I didn’t, not for a long time, see myself as being the only coloured child amongst whites. I played with them because I was a child and when you are child words like racism and prejudice do not ring incessantly inside your head like say in the head of a representative of the local government, the president, his cabinet or a community leader who was voted into power by stalwarts, comrades, communists and people who believed in Biko’s Black Consciousness.
Had she ever gone swimming with friends when she was as old as I was when I first started coming to see her? Had she ever clutched her mother’s hand frightened of the road outside her house filled with screaming cars? What were her parents like? How did she come to live in South Africa? Did she grow up during the war; when bombs rained down from the black skies in England, was she ever stuck with other people, families robbed of their men in bomb shelters? Was she a liberal? She obviously didn’t believe in the politics of the day because she had taken my mother and then me on. So, in her own quiet and independent way she was rebelling against the government.
She was making a political statement. At thirty-one I imagine the woman, the child, the girl and then her middle-aged. Didn’t she ever want to be a wife? Growing up I thought as a very young girl, a child, that everyone wanted to be a wife but at thirty-one and the divorce rate globally so high, the only people getting hitched are those blinded by the alluring volcano that is love. They are not conscious of the other person’s imminent flaws yet, how arguments can erupt from seemingly nowhere, the cancer of talk of divorce in the interim wild in the air while you and the other person in the relationship is waiting to make up. They are not conscious yet of the fall out of an illness that will later on strike the family or an intense, lingering depression that manifests and steeps itself into the bones of either the wife or the husband or the small child whose homework is overlooked over the breakfast at the kitchen table while the parents of that small child or children, who wants the attention of both of the adults his or her features resemble while they are at war with each other over some petty, childish thing.
A thing like who had to take the garbage out, who didn’t come forward and help to make the unmade beds, the smears of toothpaste in the bathroom’s basin or whose turn was to wash the dirty dishes in the sink and put it in the dishwasher. Miss Gilbey must have died already in Montagu; perhaps in her sleep, in her bedroom. Perhaps she is buried there now. Who visits her grave, puts fresh cut flowers on it, clears away the old ones, throws the brown water out and puts clean water in the pots or jars or bottles? Even in death she is a mystery to me; these two lonely sisters in a world of light of their own making; their contemporaries with double chins, sagging bosoms, grandchildren, wearing too much make-up, wearing hats to church that bloomed roses, smelling of perfume.
Miss Gilbey had a solid air about her when I first met her. As if she knew she belonged in the world. She always had a pot of tea on her desk that she poured with poise, a jug of milk, a pretty cup and saucer with patterns of flowers on; very English, very proper, very old-fashioned. She sipped her tea as we recited our poems out loud correcting our enunciation, willing us to speak fluently, with emphasis, willing us to reach for that gold star she would stick in our books that we children pasted our poetry and monologues from the books of Winnie-the-pooh in. If she was satisfied with how our vowels sounded, how we articulated the poet’s language, how invested we were in executing the lull of the text, showing the full range of emotions that was expected of us as a spirited ghost or a highwayman we would see a gold star shining off the page, blinking up at us.
In the room filled with a breeze that felt as cool as a humming fridge (we didn’t have air conditioners in those days) as my voice bounced off the walls of the studio, as I watched the backs of the white children’s heads, tufts of dark or golden hair escaping from ponytails, still in their school uniforms or sport kit sniggering.
There was nothing, nothing said of the forced removals that took place in 1964 in South End in what was once a diverse and cosmopolitan suburb filled with Indians, Malays, Muslims, blacks, whites and coloureds living together harmoniously; religion, awash with their culture at times of thanksgiving and holiness and their loyalty, their faith in their different Gods and to each other were their pillars of strength.
There was nothing, nothing said of the unrest that was brewing in South Africa, the daily disdain and underlying aggression in chars as they faced their employer’s, men and women; comrades being picked up by the Special Branch or plainclothes policemen or police spies, being detained after being questioned, brought before a court of law, imprisoned on Robben Island. There was no talk of a coloured man called Georgie Botha’s apparent suicide in this room where my voice rose and rose and rose higher and higher making an imprint, burning it, a hole in the head of Marjorie Gilbey. In the heads of those privileged whites who also came to the studio. I wanted to achieve what they had.
All those gold stars stuck in their books. I didn’t mind the silver ones but gold spelled something marvellous; something magical.
Something accomplished wonderfully; magnificently. I never got red stars. Seeing a red star gave me a start, a headache started throbbing, butterflies in the pit of my stomach started to flit as if I had failed a test at school, got all the sums wrong, spelled the words incorrectly. You only got a red star when you hadn’t learnt all the words to the poem, stammered and needed prompting from Miss Gilbey. There was no talk of the Rivonia Treason Trial, George Bezos, what was in the newspapers about it, the stories that were running internationally and a man called Mandela.
There was no talk of coloured men like Dennis Brutus and the poet Arthur Nortje who was born in Port Elizabeth, in South End which was now a suburb where white people lived comfortably, well off behind their high walls, their dogs and electric fences. Nortje later won a scholarship to study literature at Jesus College at Oxford. It was on Dennis Brutus’s recommendation that he got that scholarship. But I was only six and didn’t know anything besides school and my family. I was just a colored girl, innocent and wide-eyed, six years old with skinned knees from playing amongst the teachers’ cars, wearing North Stars when I came to Marjorie Gilbey’s Studio for Speech and Drama.
A child bullied by the older kids from other standards, tormented by them as they stalked me speaking in high pitched, squeaky voices making me cry. Mandela was just a ghost of a man. The essence of the man never showed the outward shame of humiliation from his persecutors; the Afrikaner wardens who spoke English poorly at the prison on the island. He never showed pain or suffering. His spirit was the spirit of a child, unfettered. The work of his soul continued to live in the outside world, outside of Robben Island where he was imprisoned, living in his supporters, garnering more and more praise internationally.
There was nothing, nothing of men being found hanged in their cell, tortured with burning cigarettes, told to strip naked so that they could be searched or a detainee slipping on a bar of soap.
Elijah, you are a beautiful book. Just an imprint burned on my brain like a ghost. I miss you more than most on some days, just thinking of the very thought of you. I think of the anatomy of my health.
I think of Elijah who had literally moved abroad. Well, he had always wanted to travel. He had prospects. I was a non-event in his life. He had always wanted to go to Prague. Milan Kundera was his hero. When he asked me who my heroine was, and I told him, Virginia Woolf, he had looked at me sadly, then looked away again. But she killed herself, Imogen, she literally drowned herself. Just think about that. Her work triumphedin the end, I told him, but he didn’t want to hear it from that perspective. He had looked at me one last time tired-happy before he walked out my front door for the last time. He said he couldn’t love someone who was so insecure, so unlovable, who didn’t like herself. He was a beautiful stranger, soon to be estranged from me, and I, well, was just strange. Caught up in a set of circumstances beyond my control. The mornings flooded my brain.
There was so much to do. It was the weekend. Even my Saturday mornings were spent in the library, away from Elijah after another physical altercation, that had ended with me in tears, him drinking. I’d love to look at children in those days, their focus, and concentration, their giftedness, confidence, wisdom, and maturity beyond their years. The mothers would be selfless, and giving. The fathers were tall men in blue jeans, dictating to their wives, on the whole distracted, sometimes sneaking a smoke. Saturday afternoon, it poured spitting rain. I thought of birdsong, the most beautiful sound that a bird could make. And my clothes were like another planet, and 8felt like the sea. I was soaked through. The rain didn’t last long. By the time I reached the flat the downpour was over, and felt myself falling into Elijah’s arms. He didn’t see the tears in my eyes. I was a woman on a mission. All I wanted to do was sit.
The previous night he had disappeared, returning in the early hours of the morning with a girl called Susan on his arm. I slept on the couch. The morning faded away. Winter wasn’t far off, the center of winter, and it snowed, and I dressed n layers, drinking tea to warm me up from the soles of my feet, to the top of my head. Elijah kissed my forehead, and then my nose playfully. It was rare that he was like this in the mornings. Usually he slept off his binge-drinking from the night before. We walked arm-in-arm to a café for doughnuts. He called it, ‘the nest doughnuts on campus’. It was a pizza place too, but usually in the evenings. They served it with red wine in champagne flutes. Elijah would drink anything. I would sip mineral water. Once upon a time on the way home, he put his tongue in my ear.
I felt like a specimen, an experimental science project. He waited for my reaction.
I pushed him away from me, walked ahead of him, stuffed my hands in my pockets. That night his kisses felt like pebbles on my tongue, but his lips was warm, and he whispered sweet nothings in my ear. I forgot about feeling like a specimen, like a genome, and his breath was sour, his body was like a dry riverbed, and what was lost in translation was like driftwood, was like a clown handing you a birthday balloon, and the moonlight was pearled on his skin, but I let him take me anyway into his arms. And I remembered how detached I felt as he lit a joint, but I didn’t want a hit of marijuana, I didn’t feel like it, and he caressed the softness of my inner thigh, and he sighed when I said that I wasn’t in the mood anymore. It was dark out. So dark, but the clouds were like cream, and the wind was like a gunshot going off. I brushed my bed hair in the bathroom in the moonlight, drank some water.
“I’ll come and see you,” he said, “wherever you live, I’ll come.” Elijah had promised in the beginning of our relationship. But for the first time in my life I ran away that day, but every day I look back I was afraid. I told myself I didn’t have anybody to love me, to want me. I told myself I didn’t need anyone. I didn’t have anyone who cared, to hold me, didn’t have anyone to declare that they loved me. Running away came easy. I moved to a different city, or a different part of town. Inside I would feel so empty, remember Charlie’s breath against my cheek, or his finger would stroke my bottom lip, emptying out my heart with negativity. I thought of the city as my country. I thought of me as always being sad, never smiling. I thought of my own despair, and hardship, my own suffering, and pain. The waves, the waves, the waves, eating sushi with forks with Elijah.
Stuffing ourselves gloriously to the hilt with trifle with sherry for pudding, with lamb curry, fish cutlets, and the glow of yellow rice with sultanas on a Sunday afternoon jaunt to his aunt’s house for lunch in Gelvandale. Afterwards, we’d go to the beach. If the weather was warm, we’d go swimming, wade into rock pools, and explore in my white tennis shoes, his boots. Elijah did hit me, but if it that was domestic violence, I certainly didn’t know it, felt I deserved it, even thought he did it out of love. Men did hit women out of love, didn’t they? He held my hand. I didn’t want to hold his hand, feel his fingers tangled up in mine. We bought ice cream. I looked at the mansions, he looked at the girls. I remembered Susan. How he said that the three of us were going to play a game, and I could smell the earth on her, she was cold, she complained, but I didn’t care. Her mouth tasted like cigarettes.
Out of the sea comes driftwood like champagne, like a supernova. You gave me a fright. I think sometimes to myself that I must be a bit of a joke to them, and I have to let go, surrender this feeling. I take a long walk, pass the children’s park, my estranged aunt’s house who called me ‘a mental patient’, and for the first time I realized I was at peace with being the black sheep of the family. I loved her, truly I did, and she was a survivor like me, having worked thankless hours in a factory for most of her life, without earning a pension, putting her two brothers through the Bush University. The University of the Western Cape. The last time Charlie was in my bed he didn’t want to make love. He wanted to read.All I wanted hm to do was touch me, stroke my hair while lying in his arms. He was lost in Andre Brink. Forget this place of weeping, this succession of death, think of the gathering rain instead.
All I felt was sadness when he looked at me, mouthed that he loved me, I felt a wretched sadness that only Radiohead could solve. So, the karma police came marching in, the memory police gave their marching orders. Fragile. I was fragile. Elijah was fragile, just like all my other university boyfriends. I thought of his mental state, my own mental state. Salvage, and reap, reap, and salvage, that is the key to survival, to the art of my own survival.I did feel scared that I would always be on my own, not amounting to anything much. Sometimes I wished I was dead. In Elijah’s arms I felt numb to the world, jaded, unaccomplished, and the surface tension d not want to seem to lift. Sometimes I thought he found life with me impossible. I didn’t understand how we had made it thus far as a couple. I want to scream, I want to shout, but I know that deep down he won’t respond to any of that.
God, he doesn’t want me, not like I want him. It’s over. It’s over. It’s over. My life moved towards my postgraduate studies once again, my research, my thesis. I was writing a travel column for a national magazine, about the European countries I visited in my gap year after matric. The kettle is boiling. I eat the noodles straight from the pot, not really caring about my unbrushed hair. They don’t taste like beef, which is what the packaging promises. Everything tastes like chicken. And when Elijah is gone, the bedwetting starts again. It’s the sleeping pills, and the tranquilizers I take at night. I need to sleep. The sheets are wet, my pajama pants are wet, sometimes I cry. I cry at the unfairness of it all, of Elijah leaving me. I cry. And then I get up, take a shower, change my clothes, change the bedding, do the laundry, chores around the flat that Elijah, and I used to share. I become promiscuous again.
There’s another strange man in my bed night after night. The lovemaking is all machine-like, I’m like a robot going through all the motions, the sex is hurried movements, and under the covers. I stop taking the sleeping pills, and the tranquilizers. I’m transformed into an educated, selfless wifey, making breakfast, making coffee, making half-burnt toast in the mornings for these men. I’m empowered, I tell myself. I’m in control. This revolution is done, or rather I’m evolving.I think of the branches after midnight moving outside my window. And not for the first time I think of being raped, and murdered in my own bed. I think of the poet Susan Lewis, the writer Pat Spencer. I think of hibernating in my bed, lying in the fetal position, and sobbing, mostly because Elijah left me, and not the other way around. The river seems to mask everything. It is observer of my anxiety, and fear.
I buy a color television. It is my first solo electronic purchase since Elijah has left. Men look at me now. They give me the once-over. They stare. They glance my way. This makes me feel attractive, but not for long. I can end up with anyone in my bed, I tell myself. I still wet the bed when I’m on my own. The men don’t eat the breakfast I make them. Some smile at all of this, others take a quick shower, a few make up the bed, eat cereal, watch cartoons on my television, or they want me. Sometimes I feel as f they are predators, what am I doing here, giving in repeatedly to sate their desires. The branches after midnight sing their song. Elijah could be tender sometimes, he meditated, and fasted, and baked croissants of all things, that I would eat obediently at the coffee table in the family room of the flatlet. And when Elijah was filled with tenderness, I became survivor, not victim.
I, a disciple of Louise Hay, and Marianne Williamson, was filled up, up with love for him, and a quiet kind of bone season desperation. And I remembered that last night, Elijah was sleeping, and it felt as if there was a continent between us, a narrow space between our bodies, and the bed was like the sea. All men inspire the skill, and expertise of lovemaking, and controversy, and shame, in their women. And I thought of the missionary position, Elijah inside of me for the last time, and I felt as if I was Homer. I knew I would miss him, his eyes would be tender for another soon, soon, and saw, I swear this. I saw my future self, lying in an empty bed, the university days, the ex-boyfriends, the Susan, the lovers like a vanished community. Their gestures all innocent, and I craved them like I had craved them once before, like rain, and starlight, like insight, like meat drained of taste.
And I knew that life would be a gathering for me, always a gathering.The men would be the hunters, the women, the females their victims. That night I dreamed again of Patagonia, and this island there. I felt safe there. I was older, in my forties, with no man on my arm. I was still a goddess. All women, whatever their age is a goddess. Flight, and adrenaline had erased my insatiable hunger.
Whether they are abandoned, or not. Whether they become creatures of habit, set in their ways, or not. I felt empty inside. In my dream I felt empty, because I could no longer remember Elijah’s sensitive hands, his artistic hands, and his interesting face. The island was masculine. Elijah was still a book, instead with time he had become a novel. I thought of Bessie Head then, a lit cigarette in her mouth.
Things of the past, things of the future
There are so many things going through Gail’s head at this point in time. By the sea, part natural, part supernatural, it spits driftwood out in the shape of a log, so much life, so much life, so much life.
The river runs through it, asking for the taking. Gail falls, blue, she sleeps the sleep of the dead. The dead do not struggle against all the odds, on their terms to live, they sanction the most beautiful part of their lives, and what was not celebrated in life, was celebrated in death, and in the water, Gail is like a fish. Her father is not a tall man, a cheating man with women on the side, a man’s man, he is fading away into autumn, branches are growing out of him, his fingers are an offering to God, sucking up all the clay, and the rain. All Gail wants to do is drain the paradise of the morning, she thinks she’s in love, but he’s older than she is. Her father, he does not smoke anymore. There’s a sadness to the day. Gail swims laps bravely. In her thirties, she swims laps bravely, and when she gets out of the pool, her father towel-dries her hair. The smell of the rain covers her like a wedding veil, and the earth is like a shroud.
Gail takes a warm bath when she gets home. Her father reads one of her fashion magazines looking at the women in lingerie, and bikini tops, and bottoms. She removes all the articles of clothing that she is wearing, lights up a cigarette, sits on the edge of the bath in the nude, and smokes her heart out. She puts her hand in to test the water. Lukewarm. Just right. She slips into the water, mapping her feet out, watching her pink toes. She forgot to put the bath oil in, and the Epsom salts for her sore muscles. She reads poetry in the bath. New Inscapes. She reads about Alan Paton’s reformatory boy, and cries, and cries. Her breasts are too small, she sometimes feels she’s too short, and all she wants to do is marry this older man, but he already has a wife, and a daughter, and a high-profile career. She thinks she can be the devoted mistress. Quiet, and unseen. Fit to be lover, physical body, dolphin belly, her psyche belonging to the married man, only to him. Gail is pink from her bath.
The feeling of the sexual impulse was so far removed from Gail. All she wanted was for the older man to take her into his arms. To have a child with him. For hm to make love to her, to go for long walks with her by the sea, her sea, the sea of her childhood. The sea inspires madness in her, something vast, something remote, something complicated like loneliness, and fear and anxiety. Gail feels the fear most days. She can’t get away from it. She paints her toenails red, listens to rock music blaring from her radio in the room, makes her hair all fluffy. In the eyes of her older man, she wonders if she is sexy. If she is sexy Lolita. She wonders at the gestures Betty Blue makes in that French film, wonders at her sadness. For it seems to Gail that all French women, although they are really beautiful, they are also sad creatures always meeting up with men, giving themselves body, soul, and spirt to them, and then, then the men just let them go.
The men just let them go mad, run around in bisexual relationships, make love to them in front of mirrors in the moonlight. The women end up in a hospital, or an asylum, and the children end up in an orphanage in the rural countryside somewhere, looked after by nuns. That’s all sex is, a fold in life, a reminder of a wave that transforms you, vibrations that test you, and gauge how you feel, sparking a kind of short-lived romance in you. There’s a hint of youth, of beauty in Gail’s face but instead of this making her happy, it makes her feel depressed. She knows she won’t have youth on her side forever, and beauty never lasts anyway. Women get cold, more cruel, aloof, and indifferent to the attentions of men, the sexual impulse. Women get old, older, and their beauty dies. There’s the aroma of lamb curry wafting out of the kitchen. Gail is reading Mikateko Mbambo’s poems now.A girl who goes to Pretoria University.
She’s from Zimbabwe, but this is nether here, nor there for Gail. The poems leave her breathless. The poems are like evening blossoms, blossoms of women in the daylight. Gail goes all quiet. The curry burns at the bottom of the pot. She is supposed to watching the curry, so that it doesn’t burn at the bottom of the pot. The poems are like the gathering of the elders, the matriarchs, and patriarchs of a village, and they’ve all come there for a feast. The sangoma is also there to bless the feast. In Mikateko’s poetry there’s a kind of undergrowth of memory there that exists with the children playing at this feast, becoming conscientized to the world of the adults around them, the kissing games of the older generation of kids, and the adults see the future (as Gail sees her future, and the future of these poems traveling across the world like sunlight, and nerves).They’re like amoeba-slime in the adrenaline of a male-world.
And years pass by Gail in minutes, and she thinks of the solitariness of the lone figure of the female sangoma at this feast, and there’s blessing too. Blessing in these poems. Afterwards, she washes her hair in the kitchen sink, shaves her legs. It feels as if she is getting her period. The poems are filled with longing, and belonging, the glory days of her youth, of no doubt, Mikateko’s youth too. Gail feels very much the innocent. Gail thinks that all poets have lived, and loved. Gail thinks she hasn’t lived at all. In her bedroom, she’s like a typhoon, in the mornings she wakes up, feels ugly because her older man, (that her father knows about), hasn’t called her. It feels as if he’s forgotten all about her. She checks her emails, but there’s no message from him, and it feels as if she’s on her way out of his life for good. She has poetry in her life, to save her from falling from grace, and the poems are like a gun going off.
The wind sighs outside mid-afternoon, Gail puts on a jersey. Her mother is a florist, and works all day until her fingers are numb to the bone, and she feels like death on her feet. She comes home after five in the afternoon, braving peak traffic in her family sedan. It is cold, getting colder still, the sun disappears in the sky, becoming a thing of the past, and a thing of the future. Gail makes tea, takes her gingko biloba, and feeds the tomcats. Inside, after that swim, her stomach muscles feel like a drum. She scrubs the sweet potatoes under the tap in the kitchen sink, until the water runs beautifully clear. Puts them in the oven, because that is the way her mother ate them ever since she was a little girl on the farm in Ladysmith. The earth is black after the rain. The sea is green after the rain, Gail remembers that. The sea is like the sun, old. Gail is quiet, and slow in the afternoon.She’s tired. The bath in the middle of the day had made her tired, but at the root of it all, she was a hungry reader.
She thinks she’ll find the way home in her lover’s arms, but she knows she won’t. She jumps a little too far, swears her love to him, she sees starlight, and wonder in his eyes, but that’s all there is. That’s all that she sees. She swears to her father, that her lover is attentive, and romantic, but it’s a half-truth. She feels low. The only thing that she trusts these days is the poetry, and Bessie Head’s Maru, Athol Fugard slipping into word-kill, and her heartbeat pulsates every time she reads The Road to Mecca, and she thinks of how handsome Gavin Hood was on the stage when he won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. She dreams about Johannesburg, her winters there, her aunt’s house freezing even though they lit a fire in the fireplace. They’d roast marshmallows, Gail remembered her snobbish cousins. Too beautiful, too desirable for their own good. They married young, in their twenties.
They had their babies in their twenties. Gail had never been engaged, never had a serious boyfriend, never received wedding, or engagement, or promise ring. In the water, she was platypus. The poems were like brushstrokes to her, opened her up to vulnerability, and intimacy, and the shame of apartheid. The dreams young men had in those days, and the girlsthat wanted to become women, and wives that were deeply unloved, had men for husbands who sought female partners, not just a wife to be kept at home to cook, and clean, barefoot, and pregnant, mopping the kitchen floor. Gail didn’t really understand apartheid. She didn’t remember it. What was wrong anyway with interracial relationships, Gail felt that she had to apologise for it. As if apartheid had been all her fault. Zuma had spoken about social cohesion. But what did that mean anyway to black people who were the majority stakeholders in South Africa. It stung her. Apartheid shamed her.
It shamed her, how people in the location went without basic necessities, and lived in shacks with tin roofs, and Gail could feel her warm bed, and breakfast, and roasted marshmallows in a fireplace in Coronationville, Johannesburg, swimming towards her, black arms reaching out to her.
Rubbing one of the tomcat’s belly, she picked hm up, and kissed his ears, and cuddled him, but she knew that life for black people was filled with shocking despair, traumatic incident, after traumatic incident, and hardship. The pain they felt was like a fire in their belly, their mother tongue.
After all, they had been forced to speak English, to speak broken English at best, to learn English-proper like machines, factory workers, women working on an assembly line, and all she could see was their post-apartheid inferiority, and her earth, and sky, and sea’s superiority complex.
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