A Short History of Silence

I had taken a break from writing for a period of four or five years, give or take. Maybe I had lost myself or my voice. Maybe I had lost track of my purpose. I knew I had to translate my life into something else. I see the lonely look on my father’s face. His eyes are downcast. I am sad as I think back to you, the man who was once in my life. My mother tells my sister to eat small meals. To eat bananas with cinnamon and cream.

“You can eat apples and bananas if you want,” my sister replies.

Her voice sounds as if it is coming from the next room. Meanwhile, she’s in another country. I took the phone from my mother and asked her how she spent her afternoon. She says, “I went for a walk in the park with my friend and her dog.”

In the poetry that I write I live vicariously through my sister if only for a moment. I am trying to forget the love affair, the failure of that melodrama. I kept on finding unfinished manuscripts on the computer. I kept finding bad memories and insights into interpersonal relationships where I didn’t want to find them. I used to be better at this. I used to be better at writing and now, something seems so fundamentally changed within me. After the man, I returned to my body a changed woman. Written on my body was a strange kind of alphabet that I had no prior knowledge of. Some of the books I wrote I would read now with so much emotion. I would, for example, blink back tears, or continue to page through the manuscript with indifference. Sometimes I wouldn’t recognise myself, and I was the writer.

My mother’s eyes when she is angry are the colour of pale fire. The colour of Duncan’s hands are pale. I have never been loved like this before. I have never been loved with so much furious passion, and with a level of hard curiosity in my eyes I obey. It’s with the same kind of submission that I gave into my father. The same obedience I offered my father. It’s this kind of yearning that frightens me, that keeps me up at night. That leaves me pensive, cold when it pours with rain. I know the look in his eye. He wants me now to follow him to a dismal outbuilding where he will push my head down and hold the back of my head in his lap. I was in my early twenties. He was thirty. He had a son. He’d had an early start in life. Now he has become somewhat of a cautionary tale. I want to warn other young men and women about him. He is the man with the bloody knife wrapped in a dirty cloth in his pocket. He is the man waiting to appear out of the shadows. He is anti-muse.

Whenever I think of Duncan, I think of the men that followed. They have all turned to dust. I think of them as a tribe sitting in an office space, smoking, drinking whiskey, their needs being attended to by interns who had spoiled identities, matronly wives, bratty children, sexy executive assistants, all clever girls give or take. I am inside that outbuilding again. It’s dark. There’s hardly any light. What if I don’t do this? So, what, I tell myself, if I don’t have a boyfriend anymore. But I’ll be lonely again. I’ll have no reason in the morning to wake up. I’ll go about my day like a zombie where only the streets know my name. So, I let him do what he wants to me. When he is finished, he wipes himself, mops the floor. What am I thinking? What is going through my mind? Do I care about what other people think about me at this point? I am beyond caring. You see, I am young. The young think there are no consequences for their behaviour. I’m careful. I know I won’t fall pregnant. I’m careful. I am not in love with this guy. He tells me that he loves me. He tells me he wants to marry me. Wisely, I don’t believe him.

I tell myself I will work for an hour and then I will rest for an hour. In the evening I will read, perhaps listen to an audio book by Albert Camus or F. Scott Fitzgerald as I try to fall asleep, or perhaps watch a YouTube video on a North American writer being interviewed while on a book tour as he sits in a fancy hotel in front of an ornate mirror. He will be articulate when it comes to expressing himself. He has a beard. There’s a quick movement under my fingertips as I write. I like working in the mornings.

It’s then when I am fresh, and my mood is light and happy. I make progress but it’s work and sometimes it’s slow. The sensation of time on the other hand seems slow but there’s something magical about the day. I chose to watch a video on the writer George Saunders who is a professor at Syracuse University in the States. He has won the Booker. I dream of writing a novel that will be successful. I am writing towards achieving this goal.

I can’t sleep so I turn to my phone. Vivid dreams are upon me again. I remember the retreat at a posh farm I went to. I think of the fellow poets and writers I met there. Celebrated and acclaimed literary figures in South African literary circles. The literary establishment that does not want to accept me. I considered this. I am constantly looking at how to better myself as a writer. I write novellas, never novels. I find happiness in writing about myself as a character.

Nothing and everything of my life exists in these books. It’s a stream of consciousness writing, always arriving at the destination with a hat in one hand and a packed suitcase in another. My writing was different when the man was in my life. I felt protected and safe then but now something is drawn in my face and held back and fundamentally changed within me. I know that many people live with loneliness. It becomes like a shield really. It shields me from family members who can see as I do the mistakes that I’ve made with my life, the bad choices that I’ve made that I now have to pay for.

No matter how hard I work at it it doesn’t seem as if I’ll ever be truly happy or write the way I did before landing at Provincial Hospital with covid and a nervous breakdown. How I fell into relapse and declined a past romance to escape into a ward of teenagers who were mentally ill. There was an elderly woman who wrapped sheets around her naked body. We were in lockdown, and nobody received any visitors. I think that to have a serious career as a writer, to be a writer, any writer with a certain air and reputation you must write from experience. I tell myself to write about this time.

There was a female guard that watched us. She would tear pieces of toilet paper off a roll and place it into a box next to her for us to use when we went to the bathroom. She ate nartjies. She would leave the peels next to her as she ate and then later dispose of the peel in the bin found in the nurses station. The female guard would spit the seeds into her hand expertly and place these seeds in the shell made by the orange-yellow curl of the peel. I would drink water from a tap out of a plastic mug in the basin where we had to wash our hands in the dining room.

I am listening to Jeffrey Eugenides being interviewed by someone with a European accent. He’s speaking about his hometown of Detroit. How it has seen better days. I have seen sad people in my life. Sadness in their faces, in the corners of their eyes. I am trying to do my best, be the best version of myself. I am trying to decipher whether Eugenides, the novelist, is sad but he looks and sounds to me to be triumphant. I go to the Louisiana Channel and scroll through the writers. Here I discovered the writer Karl Ove Knausgaard who is very famous.

I found a television interview he did with a talk show host in his home country. There are books of his next to her on a table. They look heavy and are quite thick. My bedroom is in complete darkness. The lights had gone out. It’s loadshedding. He is talking about his now ex-wife Linda who had bipolar depression. I don’t know how he can be so brave. There are so many things about my father’s bipolar that I write about, and so many things I don’t write about. Perhaps, I tell myself this, my books will all be forgotten one day. I will be forgotten. No one will remember me. I don’t feel disheartened about this. There’s just a kind of resignation.

I live in a bubble and am a very isolated person. There’s a trace of sun on my pale skin. I have to wash my hair. I want it to be longer like my sister’s, but I can’t manage that. My mother is always telling me to cut it all off. But then what, I argue with her, do you want me to look like a man? There’s no man in my life who I would wear it for long anyway. I want to read Fanon and Sarah Manguso. I have this app on my phone where I can read samples of books before I buy them. Of course, I have no money to buy these very expensive books, novels, short stories and non-fiction.

My brother is working until five o’ clock in the study. He is not to be disturbed. I’m bored with this English novelist I am reading but I think it is a good discipline for me to read this particular book on the grief of a beloved parent and the aftermath of loneliness and the sadness that follows it. I regard it as an assignment.

My thirst for life grows as I become older. I grow more impatient, I become less tolerant of myself, I understand myself more and I write about clouds and horses in my poetry. In my essays I write about family life and mental health matters. I have to make sense of my environment and the world that I live in. I think I have done enough for the day. Three thousand words to me is quite a lot. There were other days when I could only manage five hundred and that was when I worked well into the evening.

Oh, I know I am not aging well. With age has come the pressures of a life that were not encouraging to me in my youth. Now everything seems insurmountable, and I am left with the science of unhappiness like it’s a declaration or something. I remember the teen films of my youth and imagine Heath Ledger’s handsome face forever young in celluloid. I think back to watching Audrey Hepburn with her graceful neck to a time when I imagined all movie stars were happy and grateful and truly blessed beyond us mere mortals.

The weather was cool this morning, but the sun has emerged, and the wind is blowing fiercely. I want to be happy so much, but I’ll take this feeling of fulfillment, of contentment any day. I wonder if my father doesn’t get tired of reading old newspapers as I get tired of what is in them. The violence and brutality, the pictures of expensive homes, the trusting faces of shiny happy people, and the hard images of unhappy people found in messy circumstances.

I remember my mother walking to the shops to buy groceries. One Sunday morning my uncle and a male cousin attending church were standing in the area where the cars were parked. They saw her but didn’t offer to drop her at home or help her. This was her account. Her hands, arms, back and legs must have ached, but I knew she wouldn’t ask for help. It wasn’t because of pride. But here I am hazarding a guess.

That December my father and I spent hours reading. I would buy books online and they would arrive at the house by courier. Barking dogs would greet the man. I spent all my money on books in 2022. I did not buy the black leggings I wanted, or a tracksuit pants and new shoes was out of the question. I wonder what our child would have looked like. What the child would have grown up to become? Would the child have been manic depressive like my father, like me? Would I have had a son or a daughter?

I remembered what it felt like when you asked me to get an abortion like you were asking for something to eat with an urgency or need that had not been met. I had the sense, a certainty now when I look back on that moment that you asked that of me that you had found yourself in circumstances where you had asked that of a woman before.

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