Mystical George

The sun’s disappeared again. I think of my mother waving me goodbye with a doek around her head covering her hennaed hair. I’m crushing on the scenery out the bus’s window-seat. Thinking of how every portrait in nature and urban sprawl is sensual. I’ve quickly become a hunter for snapshots that light a brief flame inside of me, longing for a different South African culture, or delicious food. I’ve learnt to cultivate a passion for the people I meet wherever the mood or holiday takes me. I go. This, this is the awareness of another world’s earth and sky is not lost on me. When I was younger I lived to explore the rough and tough terrain of the open road. I would hop on the Translux by myself and travel to Johannesburg to visit maternal family. I’d climb into a taxi and visit Swaziland.

There are several ways to enjoy travelling. You can explore with your eyes, your taste buds, listening to birdsong and music, watching foot-traffic, watching the bright lights of the big city. I have packed a dress that goes anywhere (a church dress). The dress touches my ankles. The George-family (here I mean ‘George’ the town) attend services regularly. Pleading that you’re an atheist or not a regular churchgoer because you’ve somehow been hurt by the church won’t fly with these lamb curry, golden-roast potatoes Sunday eaters. On the bus I listen to a cassette tape on my walkman. A pale girl on the bus shares jellybeans with me. The Coloured aunty next to me has a Tupperware with her filled with vetkoek and mince that makes my mouth water.

The aunty and I make small talk about family and the weather and say nothing for the rest of the journey. I feel like a seasoned traveller at 16 years of age, even though I have only been to Johannesburg on my own and Wilderness, George and the Garden Route and Grahamstown. Snapshot. I can see into the backyards on this stretch of road that we turn into. I see tiny gardens and swimming pools. Snapshot. Trees and sky and blue hills escape into the periphery of a dense forest. Snapshot. I spy monkeys on the side of the road. Snapshot. Cars pull, snake, zigzag away from the bus. Families stop at the side of the road for a bite to eat. Those people looked like they lived to travel, living out of a suitcase, putting up a tent, eating sardines and baked beans out of a can. Snapshot. The open road is never-ending. Snapshot.  I tried to read the sky. Forecast. Overcast.

Rainclouds were gathering up ahead. The weather was dismal, miserable, mocking. I was in another time and place. Snapshot. Cities and towns have personalities and characters too. I want mystical George to love all of me. The one true thing that is immortal is the journey you find yourself on. It goes on forever and forever. Snapshot. I loved discovering people. Whether it was someone who looked like a character on the bus, or a tourist with a foreign accent and backpack, people travelling on the road with their families, small children and then there was someone like me, someone who looked every inch the outsider. Snapshot. I glance at hitchhikers with their meagre possessions next to them at the side of the road, feeling sorry for them. In a split second they’re gone.

Soon the rain pours down. Gravid and swirling, spitting, then vicious rain covers everything on the way to mystical George. It is wet and cold when I arrive. My uncle is waiting for me. I am the only person who gets off here. I wave goodbye to the pale girl who is going to Cape Town. That Coloured aunty is sleeping. It’s the nineties and I’m taking the Translux to George to visit a cousin who is the same age as me. We’re both still in high school. I’m still in that awkward phase of erupting into nervous, girlish laughter when spoken to by a boy. I have skinny legs and wear glasses. I end up visiting family in George for a long weekend. This was way before the Knysna fire. It is a lovely road that we travel from PE to George. Voldi is a distant cousin who plays the piano by ear and sings opera. He strikes a romantic intellectual, brooding figure. He’s popular. He has green eyes and is devilishly handsome.

It was Voldi who taught me that you will discover all sorts of teachers on your sojourn in this life. Unforgettable teachers, who will for the most part shower you with advice and wisdom when you need it the most, treat you with kindness, a modicum of understanding and tolerance whenever the need arose. When I think back to that holiday, I think of how much we’ve changed as a generation. Of how now every millennial is interested in a digital reality, the advances in technology, social media handles. Now we’re so into discovering the mechanics of entrepreneurship, the dimensions of browsing and exploring the web. Travel is one of nature’s complexities. You either love to travel or hate it. We visit his friends.

It’s easy to fall in love with them, the clipped tones of their Afrikaans, their blonde hair bleached white by the sun. I had never been around boys like this before. They’re all Afrikaans, good-looking, earthy-farm types. I don’t fit in. There’s a sleepover at his friend’s house. We binge watch videos. I eat a fried egg while watching Jamie Lee Curtis and Arnold Schwarzenegger play a husband and wife whose marriage is falling apart. I have this ability now to see where I belong, where I fit in and where I don’t. It was easy to feel their effortless confidence crowding me out from across the room, feel their physicality, their beauty transformed me, held me at arm’s length, made me feel brave enough to speak Afrikaans, find the words. They left me feeling jaded and insecure.

But this is a George I love, a mystical George, where George-rain shattered the edges of small-town life. This was a George of quiet suburban life, roast leg of lamb on Sundays, watched over by a hovering aunt making fudge on the stove top, me patiently stirring caramel goo until it changed consistency with an aunt’s educated guesswork. This was the George where my parents’ had their second honeymoon without us kids. One Sunday after the church service we visit Voldi’s Grade 11 Mathematics teacher. He has a lovely wife, a kind, interesting and sensitive face. He is English, white, I guess a liberal. He makes jokes. I’m shy.                                                                                                                                                                   

This life, Voldi’s life, his joie de vivre did not mirror my own life. He was an extrovert, a social animal, the life and soul of the party. I was introverted and preferred to shy away from people keeping them at a distance. Instead of partying and drinking champagne I preferred to read a good book that was usually something interminably long and boring. 

George still is a love letter to my soul. It wasn’t always adventure stomping ground or adventure country like Cape Town or Johannesburg but nonetheless I fell in love with the place repeatedly for many reasons. It was quiet (the people who lived there were a quiet kind of people), the town itself was unique, an undiscovered paradise and inspiration for the future-poet in me. For the rest of my life I would carry the memory of that holiday that I spent with my cousin Voldi from dream holiday to family road trips to visiting museums. I loved the quiet, simple life in George. I loved the open road that spelled freedom from my siblings and parents for two blissful weeks. As if in a dream I can see the woman, the poet, the writer I wanted to be.

I had explored the cities and towns of South Africa, never had the experience of backpacking throughout Europe. I only know this, that I cannot leave South Africa behind and explore the United Kingdom, the States, Canada and Ireland. This is how it ends. I am not yet a poet in search of identity. I am not yet a writer in search of identity, the writer always writing that novel. I’m chasing the sun while life flows around me. And the world seems to say, every road, I am your peace, your deliverer, your keeper and your caretaker, your sanctuary and home.

Abigail George
Abigail George
Abigail George is a researcher and historian. Follow her on Facebook, Linkedin and Instagram @abigailgeorgepoet.