Front Doors That Have Let Poetry Into My Life

The house smelled like sugar biscuits, fried onions, and cabbage bredie. To me, it was a rare and comforting smell. There was something almost disembodied about it. It hovers now in my memory like a dolphin shooting through blue air or a whale suspended in a spray of water. I remembered my grandmother’s speckled hands. I remembered the silence of my grandfather as we watched CNN and the war in Bosnia Herzegovina coming to an end as mass graves were being discovered daily. I did not understand what I was watching. That I was seeing dead bodies. That it was in fact a horror movie for some. That each body meant someone to a father, mother, child, sister, daughter, and son. It had been something he had seen in the war himself I am sure of that now. I wrapped my legs around the sturdy kitchen chair and looked at the sandwiches my grandmother had lovingly prepared for me. I was convinced I could not eat it. My tongue had not developed a taste for the tart sweetness of fig jam yet. Now as an adult I could not get enough of figs. I did not know that she had prepared the jam herself on her stove. I did not understand her love. It would be unconditional love and acceptance that I would search for my entire life from other women and men in my family and never receive. I bit into the congealed fruit and buttered bread and gagged and put the sandwich down on my plate. She had left the room thankfully and was busy seeing to my grandfather’s hot tea and lunch. I remember now how he enjoyed eating peppermint crisp chocolate bars. I did not know that I would hurt my grandmother’s feelings. That I would make her feel bad. That as a child it had never been my intention. I did not want to eat the sandwiches because I did not like their texture in my mouth. I could not bring myself to swallow them. Now the door to my grandparents’ cottage was closed to me forever. They have both passed on. I stood in front of another door. The door to the shelter in Hillbrow. The house is old. It was built during the gold rush and has seen better days. This had been my home for a few months. I had seen many things that have never left me there. Names I don’t remember. The women have all faded away into my memory. “Mlungu” is a word that will stay with me for a very long time. A young African boy had passed me in the street and had called me, “Mlungu”. I pretended not to hear him and turned my head quickly. I thought the word was an expletive. That he had insulted me. I felt dirty. I felt as if I were a human stain. This door led me into another world where everyone around me was black. I washed in a small basin and brushed my teeth with Colgate toothpaste every morning. On a Sunday we could all shower one at a time. It was a cold shower. I lived for that time like a sardine in a tin can. I felt claustrophobic in that shower. As if the walls were closing in on me. There was a peeping tom every morning. During the week he would stare at the women washing in the bath naked from the top up and waist down or using the broken toilet. I would pee standing up. I never took all my clothes off and nor was I aware that there was a peeping tom until one of the older women brought it to my attention.

I am home. I step past the front door. I have left a tumultuous year behind me. The film school, the production company, the romance with a drug dealer, the shelter in Hillbrow, the Salvation Army and my Johannesburg family that wrote me off completely and did not come to see me at the mental hospital. I have done things that I am not proud of for the first time in my life and I wonder where it could have gone so badly wrong for me. I am not terrified of sleeping alone at night yet. I am not self-medicating with tranquilisers yet. I am not completely scared out of my mind of what challenges I am going to have to face next. But over the next couple of years, this is exactly what happens to me. I begin to write poetry and I become a recluse. My father falls ill, and I see to his needs. He lands in a wheelchair, and it takes him years to recover and begin to walk again. I go into bipolar recovery and relapse never to return. I stay at home and never leave the house if I can help it. I decide I am tired of the world hurting me, I am damaged goods, and nobody will ever love me or understand me or accept my deeply wounded mind. My beloved brother also returns from Johannesburg a drug addict. I feel lost, broken and that I’m running on empty and so, traumatized I begin to eat myself into a shapeless body and shame.

I am on a bus heading back to film school. I think of the tall boy in my class to whom I am attracted and the other boy who proposed to me. The tall boy thinks nothing of me. I think he dislikes me. My mood is pensive. Am I sad about leaving Gqeberha again? No, I am not sad. My mood was temporarily upbeat. The hostess is going to put a video on. This excites me. As the bus pulls away from Gqeberha I start to feel homesick but more than anything, I feel lovesick for the tall boy. I know with a kind of certainty that the thought of me does not cross his mind. I still live with my aunt until the night when we have a violent argument and I run away into the night sleeping on the street behind a house under a cardboard box. It doesn’t cross anyone’s mind that I should be medicated. It certainly doesn’t cross my mind. Years later it will come to me on a cold winter’s evening as my father is reading opposite me and my brother is watching Netflix and my mother is watching her YouTube videos on beauty and retinol cream that yes, I probably should have been medicated. On every bus ride that I take to Johannesburg, I imagine that I am growing spiritually. I imagine I am growing in emotional maturity and confidence but I’m not. I’m not growing wiser. Instead, I’m growing older and more insecure. My self-doubt grows as a church grows on a Sunday morning. On the bus ride there are cows. These cows look content. They look content as they gaze adoringly at their calves, they look content chewing cud, and they look across with such content at their mirror images. Content is not something that I am. I am as transparent as the sea coming up for air, wave after wave. Vibrations of cold pass through me. I lean back into the frame of the chair. I want to be happy. Are there other failures on this bus? Are there other people as miserable as I am with their lot in life? I put my Walkman on. I think it was a Mariah Carey tape or Boyz II Men. Inside my head, I start having a conversation with the person sitting next to me. I close my eyes. I will happy to come to me. The hostess appears and asks if I want coffee or tea in the days when they still used to do that. That was a long time ago. I’m not that young anymore. I’ve become sad. No vision of loveliness can be sad. The day is short. Soon it is dark out and the road turns into a black tunnel. I can’t see the stars from where I’m sitting but they’re there. I tell myself that they must be. In my forties, I only know winter and dang it, this bus ride is cold. My feet feel like snow, ice runs through my veins and glaciers grow out of my head. I pour myself into this chair after every stop at a filling station. I don’t know how the next day is going to turn out. If I will make it through the night. I distract myself by imagining myself with mugs of steaming coffee. When I am 42, I will go outside and sit on an old peeling park bench while the dogs parade around me trying to get my attention and I think of those bus rides. How I was at my destination once. I put the light on above me and reach for a magazine and a snack and slowly exhale, turn the cassette around and press play again.

Abigail George
Abigail George
Abigail George is an author, a screenwriter and an award winning poet. She is a Pushcart Prize, two-time Best of the Net nominated, Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Prize longlisted, Writing Ukraine Prize shortlisted, Identity Theory's Editor's Choice, Ink Sweat Tears Pick of the Month poet/writer, and 2023 Winner of the Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Award. She is a two-time recipient of grants from the National Arts Council, one from the Centre of the Book and another from ECPACC. She won a national high school writing competition in her teens. She was interviewed by BBC Radio 4, and for, the USA Today Network and The Tennessean. Follow her on Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram @abigailgeorgepoet.