I have to stop smoking so much. I think of knitting. I think of the wool I will buy. I think of everything I will make with the wool. The tapestry I will finish of a girl wearing a blue ribbon in her hair and her dog sitting next to her. This image makes me smile. It makes me happy. As much as the man makes me happy. Well, smoking it has become a dirty habit. A filthy habit that I cannot seem to get rid of and all I want is to see him as I wait for him in the courtyard or the terrace. He is all-important to me. He is all I want in my heart but there has to be room for science too and the fourth industrial revolution. There has to be room for my research. There has to be room for the politics of the moment to become as visible as the imperfect self. All I want is the man. All I want is the boy who lived next door to me and asked me to play hide and seek. When we kissed for the first time, I thought he could feel my inexperience like rain falling on the pavement when you have left home with no protection whatsoever, such as a raincoat or an umbrella. All I have is the hours. Hours like the baking of bread, or birthday cake, or children.
Summer is here boy from Mars. You blow my mind every single time I look at you. I see everything. I try not to see everything. I am falling in love. I am falling in love. Sleeping in a chair by the window. I thought you were standing over me. I thought that I could feel your presence. Thought I could feel you watching over me during the day, and watching me from afar when I go to the shops for groceries, or bobby pins, or to look for wool. You don’t smoke, it comes from memory or it comes from desire or it comes from childhood, my childhood friend. I turn my head away and blow the smoke out in expert rings of cigarette smoke and I think of snow on the mountains in Swaziland, in Switzerland and in Austria. In the beginning this is how we talk to each other. Slowly and tentatively. I reach for his hand. He reaches for mine and we sometimes sit in companionable silence. Saying nothing for an hour, and then the hour stretches into two, and I go into my elderly parents’ kitchen and I carry cups of steaming hot black tea with two sugars to him. Does this make him happy, I wonder, and is this enough for him, and doesn’t he expect more, he is of course a man now, not an adolescent, not a boy, not a child? There must have been others. Other women. Beautiful women and then I feel that my heart is breaking, I can’t breathe and not for the first time, when he looks at me and smiles, I can’t breathe, when he gets up and asks me a question, or makes me laugh, or tells me a story, and can I handle myself around him. He loves me. I love him. Are we ready to embark on this adventure called life together? I am still afraid of the dark. As a child I was afraid of the dark. It terrified me like lucid dreaming and cognitive behavioral therapy and men who said to me in my late thirties, come and keep me company.
There is electricity in the air as he takes my hand. I can see it in his behavior, his body language, isn’t that what the clinical psychologists says, instead I look into his eyes. I am staring at him, giddy with joy and happiness. I can’t stand to look away. He is my church. He is my shopping mall. And all I want to do is touch base with him. Hold his hand in my hand. Hug him real close as we part, feel the texture of his jacket with tenderness and the pull of vertigo in my fingertips. He is important to me. I think he knows that. I think he does. I haven’t told him that in so many words, only so many ways. Only in actions. Only in words. I am writing to him now. Always on the phone waiting for it to go off, waiting for the bread and the rusks to come out of the oven. I experiment madly in the kitchen as I experiment in the darkness. Summer is here and it feels amazing on my skin. My entire body tingles as I slide into the bath and I think of him. I think of him mostly. How amazing he looks. I think of his eyes, meeting mine as he listens to me. I listen to him in return.
To his innovative mind, his forward-thinking ideas that sober me; the coward and the fool inside of me. Do you think you could ever come to church with me, do you think you could ever pray with me, and I say, perhaps tersely, or am I imagining that I sound like that, to this boy from Mars? We grew up together. We were childhood friends. He invited me to play hide and seek. What do I remind you of, I ask hi? I want to know. Our childhood, he says in a heartbeat without blinking. And overnight he has become important to me. Overnight, I have fallen deeply, truly, madly in love with him. I have waited and waited and waited for the right pilot to come. The right pilot to make intelligent conversation. He had no money. He was a history teacher who dreamt of writing plays like Athol Fugard. I know Lisa, I said once. I know her in passing. He looked confused. Lisa? He said. Am I supposed to know her, know who that it is, he says, pensive and confused and I feel as if I have cast him aside as if he is some toy that I have become bored with? I am not bored. Far from it. I am a woman in love. And in that moment that has now come and gone all I want to do is protect him, all I do is love him more. I think of his beard as perfection.
Think of his lips and mouth on mine No, darling love. She is Athol Fugard’s daughter. He lives in Los Angeles now. I think, I think, I think. I kiss his hand. I take his hand in mine. I kiss his face. I kiss his lips which are warm and sweet and taste like Glen tea. The man kisses me back, unhooks my brassier strap and runs his hands up and own my back. You feel good, he says. He takes a step back, meeting my gaze, making eye contact, making me feel safe and wanted and adored and most of all desired, and he says, you are beautiful. The man says while he reaches for both of my hands and I look a sight, or a mess with my brassier bunching into my chest, you were always beautiful, did you know that. And something inside of me is turned on like never before. He has been with women. I have been with people. I have been with men but not like this before. Never like this. It felt as if I was coming home. It felt as if I could call him sanctuary. His hand in mine felt steady and cool in mine. I could feel something turn inside of me like a revolution. I felt myself at night thinking of him, and then the impossible would happen I would not, could not fall asleep without medication. I lay awake the whole night thinking of him. All I wanted was to lay in his arms and feel his arm around my waist. I want to know what love is. I wanted people to show me. I wanted them to come to me and hold my hand, and tell me that everything is going to be ok, that I need not worry.
My people they loved me. My tribe, well, that they supported me. What is an overachiever. What is a perfectionist. What do people do besides make love and have babies and raise their family. Tell me please. Tell me quick. Look at my blue wrists. Look at the blue veins on my hands. Tell me that you love me mother. Tell me that you love me father before I destroy myself in the fire. I let the cancer burn. I let the black veined leaf burn that I balked at and turned my head away from and it felt good to do that for the most part. But the vision of her, the apparition of her red fire engine lips, her dark hair falling down over her shoulders, over the middle of her back like silk has always stayed with me. She was mother. She was mother. And in the bedroom, she was lover and wife and belonged to my father. Her name was, I sometimes forget, but it will come back to me soon enough. There were times when she made me feel as if I was the most important person in her life, and then I wasn’t. I was replaced by laxatives. To be the best she taught me, you had to be thin. Model-thin and it was a woman’s lot in life to take laxatives.
What do people do, I would ask her. I don’t know. Ask your father, she would answer. Drifting away from me. It was my father who hovered. Who hovered in the passage of our house, of my childhood house? It was my father who took me with him everywhere he went. I was made to feel wanted by my father. I was not made to feel wanted by my mother. There was always a lack of energy there. There was breakfast and toast. There was the congealed yellow sun of the egg making a smiling face up at me. I badly wanted friends but brought nobody home. One day as I was playing outside as they had a screaming match. The usual. Although usually I could predict it as clockwork. We sat outside and I was as numb as a gun. Listening to my mother’s voice going higher and higher like an orchestra. I don’t love you anymore, you know. I don’t love you. She stripped the beds. She broke her wedding crockery in the passage. In the face of my mother’s madness and sabotage and destruction he became calm. I became a gun. I became the bullets in the gun. I put a helmet on to shield me from her gaze. But of course, she could not see me. She had as usual forgotten I was even in the picture, playing with my friends after coming home from school. Your daughter. No, Miranda, our daughter. Your daughter, she said hissing.
The daughter who looks like you with the high forehead, will she ever be beautiful. I want a child, Thomas. I want a child. Give me a child, and my mother collapsed and cried and cried. I want another child. A child who looks at me the way your daughter looks at you. She hates me. It is because you give her enough reason to do that, Miranda. Can we try, can we please try to have another child. And after that, came my father’s patient voice. We could hear their entire conversation unbeknownst to them. I will stay. I will stay, Thomas. I am sorry. Yes, Miranda, you always are. Let’s make love, Thomas. Make love to me. Make me forget about this never-ending day. I am bored. You work. You go to work. You see people. I imagine you see beautiful women. Answer me, Thomas. The children, you forgot about the children, Miranda. And I looked at the man and everything mattered from his eyes, to the touch of his hands. You think too much. Don’t think so much, said the man, his arm around my shoulders. I am falling asleep, love. I felt something letting go of me inwardly. As if finally, the insane life and a sane life was had met in the middle, as if there was a coming together and I rested my hand on his shoulder and closed my eyes.
The tortured loneliness of poets, or, older males
But the air is growing cold. As coldas the angst of beginners. I am not that scholarship girl in chapters and parts. I keep on forgetting to ask her how she is. She keeps on forgetting totell me. There’s a paradigm shift from her. From the seat of her lava smileto her oracle-textured and mother-in-law-spicy laughter anointed with virgin garments and coconut oil on her hands. She’s never said she’s fought for me.The architecture of her bones stays in my mind. Life with daughters, lifewith son, life with grandchild mocks
me. This vanishing tribe of family has left me to see the existential world.T he glass is half-empty. The foliage celebrated by dirt and gravity. All I can see is this downpour of grieving in my heart. She wants to take everything. She already has everything. But the light saves me at the end of the day. So, I’m tired of this loneliness. It is my heart that is supernatural-uttered. I want her to remove all of her sin off me. The sin, the sin, it lingers like shouldering vertigo. Her lack of love speaks to me of romps in decay, a wild dagga swamp where the sunlight was a harsh mad-cold. It had no maps, seasons, harvest. No rapture takes place.
No roads. Only stability in a facility that had no coastal views. Offered usno freedom. Once I lived in a different world. I was free then. She was the ghost and I was the darkness that she dared not speak of. She, the divine feminine. This bone bouquet. This flesh, this lovely olive-skin, but I’m ashamed. You see, I’ve always been taught to feel ashamed of the colour of my skin. Freedom breaks, just like a wave, just like a branch, breaks away from the trough meeting peak, and I dream of the fastening of my mother-tongue fastening itself upon your mother-tongue. You are muse, you know. I’m coming upfor air. I think of the high care ward at the posh clinic I was that. How I overcame. African blood is powerful that’s why I write the way I do. Ankles are deep in water. The sea exists to flow for another thousand years. Its purity lit up at night.Jenny Zhang, Dorothea Lasky give me back the illusion of the modern-day glamour of the contemporary female poet. The sinful phoenix in my life (my brother) wants to get away to Canada like a thief that comes in the night.
Brother, you look as if you taste of prayers, mantras, your sad guitar playing an altruistic gospel affair. Brother’s soul was as brief as the ocean and he followed this the decay of the flaming lips of his lovers (see the exit barren is a plant, moonlight like the steadfast fall of snow’s downward spiral into waterfall). Read this ignorant joy found on blue hills, the love story of the sea’s forsaken rapture and vision. I’ve known circles of pain to poison. Who you love can make you feel beautiful from the inside-out? Your tiny bones
like the stimulus and vigour of waves. Your smile promises me speech. Brother. Nietzsche. I think of his catatonic state towards the end of his life. Of how when dad went to church in his wheelchair my brother was nowhere to be seen or found. That was his act. To destroy the river in my father’s eyes.I don’t like how he speaks to me. When he speaks to me, I wish I was dead. I wish that you could understand me. I’m frightened of living now. I am fossil adrift; the shimmer of flesh and I go bone-crazy doomed valleys. You’re like chameleon music in the valleys of my inner world, my sanctum. You’re hope.
Little earthquakes inside their heart. Glass bastards every one. They eat her alive until they’re sated. Animals.
Carnivores feasting on her. They give burning driftwood, a name. Monsters. The beasts. The kiss of death on her lips. Once again, the violent phenomena of child rape in the morning newspaper, or, on the evening news. The end game, ice and glass in their eyes. It is a mad, dark sea. Hyperactive boys. Hurt and pain brutally articulate. Electric pangs of hurt are the price every poet must pay. Indentation of men on her otherness body. Flames of violent emotion. Traumatic flood of loneliness. Obsession with vice, and the surgical instruments to put her fleshly parts back together again. Light me up. Light every woman, child, boy or girl up.They have done something bad. Something evil. Currents of evil flash through the air. All ten fingers and all ten toes glimpseat what is not natural. Nocturnal devils’ devilish desires. Echoes of poison, hysteria’s grace. They want her to beg for her life.The drugs make her high. Intoxicated. She’s dead inside. Her soul withers into a numb cold, indifferent country.
They make her think it is all in her fragile head. That she was the one who made them do it to her. Out of the black comes a crying in the rain. Little earthquakes like spokes on wheel.
The sea flows lava, flows and flows, and the sea is favour, the river is grace and forms of radiance. I invest leaves into the mimic-cry-wolf of winter news that appears with the snow. I’m falling into the arms of rain. Look! The traveller has arrived. He hides the weak force of his noise in the river. The snow storm, the winter nights whirls cloud-like supported by the fresh and new threshold of the self-portrait of the reflection of Diana Ferrus, the South African poet. I watch the news. Child rape on the news again. Tragedy-tragic-breaking me into a million burdens.In each house there’s either a rape or a tragedy. I choose to go to the sea. I choose to burn up and adjust the heat of the sun. I choose to live there. Drinking in the refuge of a
tornado, the summer tunnels made out of paper beckon. I believe in you. That you’re a custom-made reckoning made from the woodland-rib of Adam. You’re no longer sin. You no longer have a sinful nature. Take this liberty. Take this. Lines composed of nature, composed of the natural. I wrote sonnets for you. You puckered up your lips and kissed me. I walk in fields of dagga. The greenness reminds me of Botswana.
Calling me your Zelda Fitzgerald. Your Clarissa. I gaze upon your possessions. Kneel to receive you. Give your body all the praise and worship.
Chasing the sea
The voices are inside my head. Calling to me. Speaking in ancient tongues. They talk and talk and talk. The damage is done. The damage is done. I wanted a child while I was still young. They think of science in masculine terms. The humanities and creative writing in feminine terms. There’s a gap for you. There’s an excursion into the remembering mind. The shaking woman’s interesting double life. I think of the anatomy of my loneliness. How everything in life is a mystery. I am waiting for sleep to take control of my aching limbs, my physical form. I invest the past into the insomnia, for no fight is worth it. What are we fighting for anyway? He’s not here, they’re not here. No one can hurt me now. Marilyn, the hunter. Diana, the hunted. I want to live before planting love. Your fingers feel like ice slipping to the bones of me. They thread my bones to my being. Give hope to my flesh. Now I just want to live, but there are days when I am tired of wanting to live. The washing flutters in the breeze, men and woman have been kind to me, and I have a lust for the gulf between us, how I’ve imagined you my entire life. Country of Adam’s rib, country of blood, stone and wine. Her teeth bite into my pose. There’s my unbearable sadness. Watching you satisfies me. I go all cold sometimes. The tiredness, the energy. In a perfect world you would have been free. You would have set me free. Your womb fashioned me. So, I write for the passionate outsider. The woman displaced. The female dispossessed who lives from one day to the next in psychological extremes. I am that woman displaced like Jean Rhys. I am the dispossessed female. And the woman that I love, whose womb fashioned me is my mother’s.
I think of all the time we have wasted sibling. All the love that is gone. My loneliness grows like plant sap. Like water in wild places. All the fight has left me as I chase the sea. I wake, I chase the sea. Rabbit is gone. Don’t tell me about your secrets. Don’t tell me about your love, sibling. Leave me like you have always left me. Leave me standing here by the bright lights of this city by the sea. I always wanted your love. You were always high on life. The extrovert with friends. You erased me from your life so effortlessly. From your kingdom. I think we have said it all. The love is gone. Gone from your world. Gone from my life. They say I have a death wish. I’m hungry for it. The ghost of my spirit is hungry for it. It is cold here. Winter is coming on strong on this radar. This illusion sticks around like the Seine. I wish I was ghost dropping off this radar. I feel sick. You make me sick. I lost the proof. I think of all that I have sacrificed. Think of myself as crime and victim. Sibling, you’ve found love. We’re passed the object of forgiveness. Nothing I can do about it. You’re the daughter of the Czech Republic. Let me take you to the low of the city. I am wearing my glasses. Keeping my attitude. I think of your German boyfriend with his artistic fingers, sensitive face. How again someone else replaces me in your life. Bipolar takes all. Bipolar thinks that love is evil, that love means war. My mother never brought me sanitary napkins in the hospital. Never brought me clothing to wear. I walked around like a zombie. When she came, she spoke to the other patients there at the hospital. Looking for a friend in a stranger. She left me alone. Standing there. I was her mirror image.So bulimia and anorexia nervosa found me.
She holds all the power, all the cards. The woman who ate everything. I never had your heart. This takes some time to explain. Let me understand you. Let me understand this. Out of reach, you’re always keeping busy. I’ll always be the same. When I was in love, I was in love with my own shadow. My heart’s bruised. I think all the time of how close to death I was. The renal unit at the Livingstone Hospital. My life is the diary of a volunteer. On the imagined wings of a bird in flight, I come to you. This message comes to you. This love letter comes to you, my mother. Theories have long since disappeared. The image of the soul. The twin image of our soul has vanished Nothing gets better here on this side of the world. I don’t see myself in the mirror anymore. It is only my pride, your ego that lends itself to a new philosophy of the advanced world. I’d like to leave the world random. But I no longer want to examine the past, aftermath, aftershock shielding the echo of the shadow, my bruised shadow. We have nothing to say to each other anymore Only the visions remain. The words are all gone now. You grow out of it. No, not the bipolar. The vision you had of yourself in high school. Where you would be five years down the line, a decade. It is just me giving up my consciousness for another. You grow out of the authentic. It is coming back to me. The collect calls I made home from the hospital. Abandoned there. Younger, I was arrogant. Life was so easy, comfortable, happy. Not anymore. I wish I could say I have achieved my personal goals, fulfilled all my wildest dreams. What am I holding onto? The self that is a soulless misanthrope. The universe is amplified. Birdsong in the air. The leaf falls. It is just gravity.
And because of the violence against me, I have zero tolerance for violence. And because of the mental cruelty against me, I have zero tolerance for mental cruelty. They have defeated me.
The family, the cousins, the aunts and the uncles. I am done looking for love in a home that puts me up against the wall. I am lethargic now. Not wanting to talk. Not wanting to talk to anyone. I am on my own now. Alone. All I have is loneliness. That’s the kind I am. The voices say, Petya Dubarova, to stop talking so much and to become a good listener, an effective listener, an efficient communicator. Revealing the purpose and value of others as God sees fit, as I connect with the universe. To transcend the negative, the voice tells me Petya, I also have to transcend the pain of the universe, the loneliness of the universe. I have to remember birth, rebirth, saturation. I have to move on from one phase of personal growth to the next level. From maturity and the confidence of maturity, to death. But it is difficult and tiring to be forgiving of myself, to be grounded in self-love and the world around me dearly, or, for life. And then there’s this nourishing sense of spirituality that strengthens me daily. I am a stranger waiting for the train worshiping sharp objects eating eggs, chicken and soup. I live in a dark house born of green figs in September on a Sunday afternoon. A dark house born of a writer in a cage sheltered and protected by the light from all the activities of harm. While watching the first snow of a June winter, with the falling snow the road inside finds bipolar me again. High on life. Low on life. Numb on life. Dead to life. And then I realise I am never going to see uncle Rabbit again.
Ever. He died on a Thursday evening of a heart attack in a hospital room while I exhaled a pose. While I overcame my evolution at home typing out my third novel. I have the fear of love, of falling in love on my side, of sexual intimacy, of being made to feel vulnerable in front of another person. I am crashing. I am crashing into the waves chasing the sea of Petya Dubarova, and there will always be those who lecture me. I think the world, and my siblings have done me toxic in. And I remember the day my sibling’s girlfriend showed me her tattoo. He must have a thing for a girl with tattoos. I don’t know. We aren’t close anymore. What happened in my own father’s life is happening now in my own. The estrangement from the middle earth of the inner family, of the immediate family. I make cinnamon toast or eat peanut butter straight from the jar with a butter knife, and I try not to think of writing confessional poetry, or, the fact that I’m not loved by sibling, or, cousin, or, aunt, or, uncle, or, distant relative. I show them my rewards like arrows. Only I see the columns of light in my arrows. Yes, I’m done in. I’m done in. I’m going nowhere. I’m going everywhere. Jagged little pill in my mouth. Rush of water down my elated throat. I really wanted to see her tattoo. Why, oh, why am I so surprised that she gladly showed it to me. Bipolar has made me frightened of everything. Of landing on the ash heap like other people’s sorrows. I think of my own sorrows. I’m left thinking of how important it is to keep correspondence, journals and copies of your work. I think of my own father and mother living out this kind of perfect life.
My mother had a spacious house, they had two cars, and she had to raise three children. Two daughters and a son. She didn’t teach me to have that. To invest my life in children. To invest my life in sons and daughters. I know my roots and they go deep like a ninja-warrior. Now I find myself living vicariously through Dorothy Parker, and Maya Angelou. I think of the mute wind. I think of the constant rain at my window. I think of what I see when I see wildflowers. Cemeteries, ghosts, the apparitions, the voices in my head, hallucinations. There are days when I am just writing to get by. I keep telling myself it is not hopeless. All is not hopeless. That this life is what I have been given. My siblings think they know it all about bipolar. Even more than me. I can’t understand a word that that they possess about mental illness. They give it to me, not as a gift, but as something to control. I think of the difficulties of my father. The difficulties of a young mother having to accept a manic-depressive husband. Nobody caught me when I fell. Contradictions keep me busy for a while. I try too hard in relationships. I was a teenage runaway falling away to the waterfront of hospitalisation. The perspective was clear. The view of my life settled. I had the beauty of language. It gave me inter-connectedness. The relationship I wanted. I was a sailing boat that caught the wind. On my way. On my way. Then the mania would come, or, the clinical depression, or, the attempt to take my own my life, or, the suicidal thought, and I would be derailed again from the perfect life that I had lived before. I would be abandoned and forgotten by my mother.
I would be abandoned and forgotten by my siblings, by relatives who told me that they wished they could be of more assistance, but they had their own problems, or, uncles and aunts would just ignore me. With the onset of mental illness in adolescence, my life became more complicated over the years. I became a hunting and gathering woman of current trends forecasting for a blog that I wrote, ephemera from my paternal grandfather’s life, and phenomenology. I became this rather complex vessel (never studied further, never had the sunny road of the marrying life, or, those sons and daughters, and strange, I had always been madly in love with children my entire life), and in the end it was language that accepted me, not family, not siblings that had looked up to me once when I had the normal life, the kind of life accepted by family. There would be all this ignorance and sham surrounding my mental illness. I became known as the storyteller, I would make up stories, and this would do the rounds. So, I am threatened and cajoled, told in no uncertain terms by my sister that I am not living. She never phones home to speak our father, elderly and infirm now. Weak and limiting and limited, and I tell myself that what matters most is recovery. Coming out of that despair and hardship and release of relapse. Now I think back to the early days of the initial treatment of my bipolar, the hospitalisation of my bipolar when I became something of a pill popping zombie, then an insomniac, and then there was this return to normality, to homelife, but also terrifying ignorance in the family, also terrifying ignorance around the sufferer, and stigma.
The discrimination of living with the bloom and smoke of mental illness. I keep telling myself pain births creativity. That it is the motivation for pursuing God. Must be more Eckhart Tolle, or, Gary Zukav than me I suppose. In hospital people maybe want to be your friend. But outside, you become like strangers again. You return to a kind of semblance of your previous life. You find people don’t want to know you anymore. Release from hospital always brings me back to writing, to my childhood. To the swimming pool in Gelvandale where I was baptised, to a picnic in Port Alfred. Yes, I found baptism and God. And sometimes, just sometimes, the writing annoys me, or, I get annoyed with myself, and sad, as if my work is almost incomplete. Almost as if I am not living up to my own expectations. And every time upon my release from the hospital after my meds have been adjusted, I have to open a new door, learn to live a new life again. It’s difficult, but I have endured this. I have survived. I remember that I have strategies, goals and actions. As my father did before me. I hate it that I blame him. I hate it when I say something that hurts him, and I see him wince as if I have slapped him very hard across the face. I mean, I am used to embarrassment, and humiliation, and people unfriending me with a kind of energetic efficiency. I have to work on self-love daily. I pray daily. I try to be kind but it is like making an anonymous donation. And every year I promise myself more self-love, more personal growth, more prayer and meditation, more reading, and I make an action plan out of it for the next six months. To the lighthouse.
To the lighthouse I go. There are days when I talk and talk and talk. There are also days when I cannot meet your gaze. When people’s faces look different to me in the morning light. When I’m afraid of Virginia Woolf. Society allows many things to happen to you when you are mentally ill. I’m always putting my trust in people, and being let down badly. Balance is everything. All I can think of is that I am a novelist now studying the craft of writing with every narrative that I write. That I am a poet. And a bipolar life can be as healing as rain with a savage kind of violence. At least that’s the way that I see it. Bipolar itself, there’s still so much that we don’t know. What I hear most often from other people who live with bipolar, is this. That I wasn’t always bipolar. I wasn’t always like this. I didn’t need to take a sleeping pill to sleep. Maybe there was a traumatic incident in your childhood, or, long term abuse, or, you were never loved by a parental figure, or, there was a kind of stress or burnout that you couldn’t deal with. I’ve been there. Uncle Rabbit is gone. I’m still here. I still get to live life with purpose and meaning and truth on my own terms, and there are days when I feel like a tragic figure caught in a storm. There are days when I want the world to see me. There are days when I don’t want the world to see me, because I don’t think that they’d understand me, but there are also days when life is infinitely more beautiful. There is an image that I manufacture every so often in my mind whenever I feel like it. I see the picture of a little girl, and she is loved. Bipolar is not on the scene yet. Her life is not derailed yet. She is eating watermelon on the beach. The sun is going down. She is laughing with her boy cousins. Smiling for the camera. Smiling for all the world to see.
In the big night
“What are you running away from? I’m sad too, you know. Leaving behind the only world that I’ve ever known. Scooter’s the name by the way,” said a thickset guy who had bagged himself a window seat. His muscles showed through his Sunday shirt.
There was an awkward pause before the response came.
“The woman I love doesn’t love me. We’re distant cousins. She wants to become a nun as a matter of fact.” There was another pause. “And Hulk’s the name”.
Hulk wasn’t in the mood for conversation. He was thinking of the great-uncle he had just buried, so, he closed his eyes and pretended to sleep.
“Is she beautiful, or is she a plain Jane, ordinary, or a choir-singing church girl?” Scooter prodded seemingly oblivious to Hulk’s antics.
Hulk shifted in his seat. “Of course, she’s beautiful.She can dance, she can sing, she does needlepoint, and she is a staunch Catholic who attends Mass like clockwork.” Hulk threw a curious glance at his questioner, a hint of interest brewing up in him. Women were a tricky subject for him. All his previous love attempts had been just that—attempts. Perhaps if there was anything he could talk about, it was that. Share his woes with this petulant stranger he was meeting for the first time in his life.
“You do know that there are only two ways we’re going home, right?We go home alive or dead,”Scooter paused as if to allow the message sink in. “We either go back as heroes, or dismal failures at protecting our country. At protecting the innocent men, women, and children of our country.” There was another pause. It’s not just our lives on the line here.”
“Soldier boy, we’re in the army now. What are you running away from?”Hulk scowled dismissively, the spark of interest beginning to fade.
Scooter turned to look at the other young people in the bus who had just finished high school as if to see if someone had been listening in on their conversation.
“In my own case, I’m running away from boring Sundays. Church on Sundays. There was never anything nice to eat at home, you know.I‘m running away from poverty, from being classed as being from a different race.”Scooter was speaking casually like he hadn’t noticed the Hulk’s disinterest.
“Can you believe this class system? They want to call you white, or black, or brown, or Hottentot, or native.” Scooter was not looking at anyone in particular as he spoke. His head kept moving from the window to a face, back to the window, to Hulk, back to the window.
“I’m thinking of my mother. She cleans churches for a living. She cried when I left in my uniform. She told me, between sobs, that I looked good and handsome in it. She just stood there in the doorway of my bedroom sobbing into one of my father’s handkerchiefs.”A nostalgic smile was beginning to develop at the edges of Scooter’s lips. He paused to gaze out of the window again at the night sky.
“I believe in Kingdom Come. I’m Catholic. Was an altar boy. My whole life is the church. After the war, I’m going to Italy. I’m going to become a priest. Even though I know it will break my mother’s heart.” Hulk blurted outin a melancholic, almost remorseful, tone. Something about Scooter’s monologue had stirred up the nostalgia in him.
The bus was quiet now. The incessant chatter had all but disappeared. Everyone was lost in their own world. Most of them were thinking of the start of basic training in Cape Town. Scooter turned to look at him, the hint of a smile still on his face. He didn’t appear surprised at all that the his hitherto disinterested neighbour had responded to his speech. Then he began his rotation again—this time even slower and more methodical— from the window, to Hulk, to a random face and back to the window.
“I think of my dad, and my brothers when I read the Book of Job,”he said. “My eldest brother sells vetkoek on the golf course on weekends. Dad was a barman on a Friday and Saturday night.”He had a faraway look on his face as he spoke, like he wasn’t really seeing anyone as his head turned from one face to the other, and back to the window.
“I believe in roast chicken. The pleasures of trifle.” A mocking voice came from the back of the bus.
“I believe in the innocence of roast potatoes.” Chorused another.
“That one means business. Come sit here. Tell me all about your sweetheart. I’ve got all the time in the world before we get to Cape Town. I always wanted to go to the Mother-land. And you?” came the mockingvoice from the back of the bus again.
“You’re rolling your eyes at me now. Now you’re shrugging your shoulders. Oh, what’s that rustling sound. I thought it was a chocolate wrapper. Geez, Louise, I’m hungry. I’m starving.” Scooter made his way to the back of the bus with his padkos.
“Smoke?” Hulk asked nobody in particular.
“What did you say there?” came Scooter’s voice like an echo.
“I asked you if you wanted to smoke. I roll my own cigarettes. My old man had a pipe, smoked tobacco. It was really bad for his lungs. He passed. Last year. The cancer. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about him. I wish he were here; you know. Wish he could see me get married. Meet the perfect girl.” Hulk said sadly.
“Boys, listen up here. This is a non-smoking bus.Where is the exit route out of this place?” Scooter said from the safety of the back of the bus.
“I have a girlfriend. I loved how when we went to the beach, for instance, the sunlight would play upon her hair. She set me free. All I just wanted to say was that I never felt like this before, but my cries for help went unanswered, and that in itself is an answer, isn’t it?” said Scooter watching for a reaction on the face of the young man sitting next to him.
“Ah, a poet for all the nations. We have William Shakespeare in our midst. Sir, pray do tell, can you recite sonnets as well as prose for all of us.” Hulk jeered at Scooter.
“Nothing is real anymore. I think about her all the time. I dream about her. And I wonder what she’s doing. I told her not to wait for me.” Scooter continued to his audience of one.
“The stench of war is out there, waiting for you, waiting for me, waiting for all of us.” Nathaniel said softly to himself. “Pay no attention to this riff raff. Ignore this this duffle bag on my shoulder. But my family insisted on me packing some winter and summer clothes, two shirts and a tie in case I meet a member of the opposite sex in Kenya. The uncles insisted.Jones. I’m Nate Jones. Pleased to meet you.” Said Nathaniel with his hand outstretched.
“I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. The name’s Cato.” Cato mumbled. He reached out his hand. Shook Nathaniel’s hand. Smiled in a friendly manner.
“My Christian name is Nathaniel. Do you have a sweetheart?” said Nathaniel biting his bottom lip, but Cato ignored him.
“So, where are you from soldier boy?” Nathaniel said again, eager to start up conversation.
“A windy city.” Cato mumbled again.
“Does she mean a lot to you?” Nathaniel put his arms behind his head, and whistled.
“Who?” Cato said peevishly, as if he didn’t like where the conversation was heading.
“Your sweetheart. Are you going to write to her?” Nathaniel asked, his eyes glued to a speck of dust on his trousers.
“No.” Cato said glibly.
“The strong and silent type. No crime against that soldier boy. So, you’re here because you want to see the world. Looking for adventure?” Nathaniel answered. Brushing the invisible speck off his pants with his right hand
“You could say that.” Cato mumbled again. “Something along those lines.”
“Don’t talk much. I’m tired. I don’t sleep very well. Wake me up when we get to Cape Town. Just tell me one thing before I doze off. Are you in love with her, is she the love of your life?”Nathaniel’s tone changed. He felt sorry for Cato.
“I’m going to marry her. I want her to be the mother of my children.” Cato said with a certain kind of pride in his voice.
“I’m a tortured soul too.” Nathaniel said looking into the aisle of the bus. Watching guys making their way to empty seats.
“You?” Cato said surprised.
“My girl died. Tell me when the sun is out.” Nathaniel said quietly, closing his eyes.
“Our lives are about to change forever.” Cato said staring out of the window. Watching the world go by.
“I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Nathaniel coughed a little.
“Believe me, the sun will breathe. Leaves will fall to the ground. Another winter has come and gone, and summer is all too beautiful.” Cato said with an otherwise expression in his eyes. He was becoming fond of Nate Jones.
“I bet you the drill sergeantwill say something along these lines. Boys, repeat after me. A soldier breaks all the rules out in the field.” Cato laughed.
“A soldier breaks all the rules but not in my camp. Something funny, sonny?” came Nathaniel’s voice.
“No, sir.” Cato started to play along with Nathaniel. Beginning to enjoy this game.
“A soldier is an actor.” Came Nathaniel’s voice again.
“A soldier is an actor.” Repeated Cato, guffawing and snorting in mock-derision.
“A soldier is a man who honours tradition.” Nathaniel saluted Cato.
“A soldier is a man who honours tradition.” Cato saluted Nathaniel back.
“No women? Seriously! Geeze, Louise.” Came Scooter’s voice from the back of the bus.
“No women out there for you, my friend.” Hulk guffawed.
“Hey, you. Hulk, I’m talking to you. You talk now as if we’re old friends. We’re not old friends.” Scooter said indignantly.
“This is a war we’re fighting. We’re not going to a church dance in a church hall.There’s nothing but sand, and more sand, and desert, and more desert where we’re going.” Hulk said unsmiling.
“This is meat and potatoes country out there. Is that what you’re saying?” came Scooter’s comrade’s voice.
“Don’t listen to everything that he says. He might be pulling your leg for all that you know.” Scooter admonished.
“Nobody was speaking to you.” Hulk said in a loud voice.
“You’re very good-looking, handsome even, I must say.” Scooter giggled, feeling slightly foolish, but brave too.
“Like I was saying, there’s no mystery girl out here with red lips, and smelling like perfume. It’s just wilderness.” Said Scooter’s comrade.
“Can’t say the same for you. I think it sounds like paradise. Heaven on earth. No father beating the hell out of you, and your old lady on a Friday, and a Saturday night.” Hulk said choosing his words with care.
“Slow and tender. I like girls with curlers in their hair. Kiss them slow and tender. Hold them in your arms, like this, they go crazy-mad for it. Fall for my line every time.” Scooter said smooching the air.
“The world is about to go to war, and all you can think of is girls. Shame.” Hulk literally spat the words out.
“Shame for you. I can tell you’ve never been kissed.”Scooted laughed out loud.
“Oh, really now. You some kind of fortune-teller?” Hulk said. He crossed his arms across his chest somewhat defensively.
“What are you thinking of, soldier boy? You thinking about a girl that you had to leave far behind. Describe her. Describe her to me, please. Was she the love of your life?” Nate asked Cato, but Cato pretended as if he didn’t hear the question.
“You think they’ll give us all rifles.” Scooter asked with a dumb grin on his face.
“War is not about running around with a gun, and shooting up people.” Hulk said. This statement changed the entire atmosphere on the bus.
“I know that. I was just making a joke. Sorry. Apologies. No need to be so serious. Lighten up.” Scooter said with a helpless look on his face. He began to crack his knuckles in an attempt to lighten the mood somewhat.
“I don’t need you to tell me to lighten up.” Hulk said somewhat aggressively.
“Sorry. Apologies. I thought since we’re all guys here, and everything I’d lighten up the mood.” Scooter shrugged his shoulders. He was a tall fellow. Stooped his shoulders whenever he walked.
“You thought wrong. It’s the principle. There’s a Hitler, and a Mussolini out there hellbent on starting a war.” Nate through his hands up in despair. He shared a look with Cato. They both laughed at this short exchange of words.
“My father was from Saint Helena.” Cato said looking out of the window, momentarily blinking back tears.
“He speaks.” Hulk said with a snigger.
“Saint Helena, where is that exactly? Never heard of it.” Scooter wore an interested look on his face, but pretended as if he had heard it all before.
“It’s an island in the middle of nowhere. Just sea, sea, and more sea for five days until you reach the shores of the Cape, or land, whichever first.” Cato said, as if he was reminiscing about better days.
“There’s no grass where we’re going. Guys, don’t worry about getting grass stains on your uniforms.” Nate commented, smiling broadly at Cato. He had good teeth.
“No grass, you mean like no grass. No grass under my faded shoes.We get a uniform, you say, with boots and all.” Scooter said with surprise in his voice.
“My mother, she couldn’t stop crying. My sisters, they couldn’t stop crying.” Hulk sounded pensive. One minute the centre of attention. Next, withdrawing from the group.
“There’s no wind where we’re going. No mountains, or rivers. Just sentry duty, and driving ambulances, carrying stretchers with young boys who are going to be amputees one day, carrying the lame, the wounded, the sick, and the dead. Putting the dead in body bags. Burying the dead. Marking gravesides with the cross.” Nate said leaning his entire frame into the seat. He pretended to make himself comfortable.
“Soldier boy, anybody ever tell you that you have a lovely personality, you know.” Scooter said wearing a curiously serious look on his face.
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