I am not young anymore. There are more years behind me than there are in front of me.
The pink brassiere was hanging on the washing line in the backyard blowing in the wind. My mother was taking the washing off the line, and I thought of the Philippines. The day you went out on that boat. In the photograph that you showed me that evening when we were sitting on the couch in the sitting room of my childhood home, you wore a life jacket and you had a paddle in one of your hands. You were looking away from the camera and had been caught unawares. I wonder now who took that picture. Was she the girl who was holding you around your waist in another picture that you sent to me that marked the pseudo-end of our relationship? Was she the “tourist guide”? Instinct tells me I will never see you again. At night, I hate you. I hate that you’re not near. At night, I seek closure. At night.
Duncan Fields is telling me a story. I am drinking a cup of hot coffee and looking across at him. He reaches for the blue mug with sunflowers on it that he always drinks out of. It’s become “our thing”. He is telling me about taking a long drive in the family car to his aunt’s house and how he was sleeping in the backseat on the way home. It was a birthday party. He was full of stories like that about his family. He did not love me and would tell me, show me that he did not love me in his actions, thoughts, and deeds. I would make him a cup of black tea with four sugars when he arrived. He would make himself comfortable on the couch and smile at me. When his phone rang he would reach for his phone and answer it. Sometimes he would speak Arabic, and sometimes he would speak English.
He was a linguist. One afternoon, I fried ham in a pan for him. I was always doing wifely things for him like that.
“Oh, can’t you fry it?” He said with an urgency in his voice. “My mother always fries the meat when she gets it at the grocery store. It’s healthier that way. Don’t you do that? Your mother?” He is surprised when I say, “No, we don’t do that. We never do that and so I find myself in the kitchen frying ham. Then I discovered there was no bread and I had to go and tell him that I can’t make a sandwich for him because there was no bread. There was no reaction to this, no mild irritation, just acceptance.
“Do you want ham?” I sit next to him, folding a leg under me and reaching for a now lukewarm cup of sugarless black coffee.
“No, that’s alright. You can have it.” He is looking at his phone again.
“I don’t want it.” I take a few sips of my coffee.
“You’re not hungry?”
“No, not really. I’ll store it in the fridge.”
“For your dad?”
“I don’t know. Maybe we’ll get bread later on.”
“Someone will go out to the shops?”
“Yes, maybe someone will go out to the shops.”
Although your mother writes to me and your sister comes to visit me with gifts of pretzels and ginger tea, very kindly she will hug my father and kiss my cheek, and when she leaves (her husband and son waiting in the car), I am relieved, I am cheered up, I feel less wounded, less hurt by life, and I no longer have an opinion about my mother’s indifference and I remember my brother’s loyalty to me, my sister’s loneliness in Europe (she’s so far away from South Africa), my father’s despair and I come to this room, open my computer and I begin to write. It doesn’t matter what I write, or how I process everything inside my head, all that matters is that I put pen to paper in my paper and I slay dragons. What is the truth, what was rather the truth in our relationship? You were a soldier and I was a novelist.
I found the complexity of natural beauties at the backs of your hands, in the width of your palms staring back at me, in the solemn meeting point of your lips, the strength of your back. I can’t really put my finger on it. You were good news and I was bad news. You were my antidote to having a stressful day. Dear Cambodia, my loneliness crushes me these days. I’ve known suffering in my isolation. I am tied to my emotions, to the death of autumn spilling away in these leaves drenched with pouring rain. I await winter. I stand upon its threshold. No longer will I hear your voice and there’s both grief and denial in me acknowledging just that reality. It’s the end of the day. It’s my nephew’s weekend with his father. He hands me a piece of gum, negotiating with me for my cellular phone.
The floor of my bedroom is messy. My hair is unruly and unkempt. I washed it yesterday with egg shampoo and comb conditioner with my fingers. I walk around the house with a shower cap on, typing at my computer, making endless cups of tea. I stroke the back of the spoon with my nail, put sugar in the cup and stir it. I heat the milk up in the microwave. I feel like death. I didn’t sleep well last night. My sister telephoned. I hardly get a word in edgewise. My father’s eyes look sad whenever my sister phones. She is in Europe. Right now, she is playing the well-adjusted daughter. In the next minute, she will ask my mother why she is talking to her if she has food in her mouth. My father will pretend to read his book. I think of my basic needs. Who will see them now?
I don’t want to speak to Arianna but my mother makes these comments about my personality, about my hair, about the book launch I went to weeks ago as if I am not even in the same room. I feel as if I am in orbit. I feel as if I am a piece of driftwood. I feel as if I am Tom Hanks in that film Castaway that I was supposed to watch with Duncan but never did. I am forty-four going on eighty. I hear my voice from far away. I am defending myself but my voice is a lifeless, flailing thing. I think I know how to say goodbye now to the men that leave me. I will write about them. I bring them to life on the page. I am hard at work now trying to forget Duncan Fields. The good man, the kind man, the sweet man, the Christian, the army man. I am standing right here but he is still inside of me and I am still angry.
My anger turns into a river as I write this. Duncan Fields is an enigma. I was no prize. It was my flesh that was the prize.
“It needs to be blow-dried.”
“No, you have to cut it.” My mother remarks to my sister on the other side of the world. She holds the phone to her ear.
“She doesn’t have to cut it. She needs to look after it.” My sister sighs. She knows better.
“You have to cut it into a style.” My mother sits up straight in her bed and looks at me hard. She stares at me as if I am a trig question.
“She needs new spectacles. That’s an old style she’s wearing.” That’s my sister’s voice from Europe.
My mother is getting older.
“Why don’t you listen to your sister?”
“She’s getting fat again. Why doesn’t she take better care of herself?” I think of my sister’s hair. Her dyed hair. Her long blonde hair smells just like honey. I think of the perfume in her bathroom. I can hear her voice in my head as she tells me just exactly how lonely she feels. That she has nobody to come home to. I think of her walking home on those cobblestone streets. I think of her taking the tram. She is never going to live in South Africa again.
“Did you hear?” My mother mouths at me. She’s taunting me. I am the resident joke. I drift away. I sink into my own thoughts. I don’t need this. I look at my father. He meets my gaze and we sit there looking at each other as they speak to each other. My heart skips a beat. I am to blame for this state of affairs.
“Your face is fat. Do something. You’re still young. Don’t you believe you have a purpose?” She’s the one that got away. That made a life. That is going to reach her destination. I am an operation project.
“Yes, it is round.” My mother laughs. “Tell her. You wouldn’t believe how she is looking at me now.”
“How is she looking at you? Put her on the phone. I want to speak to her.” I think of my sister’s high cheekbones chewing a sweet potato fry, forking and eating a brown cube of steak. I feel like a worm. A small and curious worm.
“Oh, is it? Maybe it’s the band on my head.” I tell her with painstaking movements, my tongue inside my cheek and we say our goodbyes and she’s gone again. Never to return to me in the ways she had in childhood and adolescence.
But all I can hear from both of them is that I am a failure. On a Saturday morning, my mother drives me to a book launch at the Muslim Movement Hall. She says she’ll see me in two hours. I see nobody I know. Inside the hall I see Teddy. He is a poet and has come with a friend walking with a cane. He introduces us. I stroke her hand. She smiles at me. It is a gentle smile. It is the smile of a kind European lady. Teddy is kind too. He asks me if I want to sit with them. I decline the polite invitation and say I need to sit near the back. I need to be near the bathroom. They walk to the very front of the hall and sit in the second row. Just what I was hoping to avoid. I enjoy the morning. I made a friend. The woman that was seated next to me for the duration of the programme. One day I am going to be good.
She wore a white scarf that covered her hair. The lights go out near the end. Muslim women are standing at the tables at the back making tea and coffee. The woman tells me she is a teacher at Paterson High, and that she teaches Afrikaans. She shows me pictures of a new lab built in George Botha’s name at the school. He was a fallen struggle hero who was involved in the boycotts of the eighties. I tell her we should keep in touch. She tells me to type my name and number in on her phone and save it. I smile back at her as I hand her the phone back. I never hear from her again. I don’t think I even told her my name. I didn’t get hers. She told me she was a member of the New Unity Movement. I am trying to write a letter to the editor on education. One day I am going to be a psychotropic-free woman.
On a cool Sunday evening, I feed the dogs and take pictures of birds’ nests in the willow tree in our backyard. I think of all the books I have written. They pour out of me like water. The lines form branches that have to be reconstructed by platelets and bifurcated veins. I am addicted to words. In memory, they’re a layered soup licked by crushed garlic, peeled onion, diced carrot, cubed potato, and ribbon pasta (always ribbon pasta) for one. I cook for myself before cooking for others. I plate happiness in the bowl. Sometimes I eat the meat out of the frying pan with my fingers. Blowing heat off my fingers. Wincing at the pain. I think of the emotional pain I have carried all this time. Man wants the woman to free him from his insecurity and his wounded life.
I could not be that woman for Duncan Fields. I made a mistake. My mother is watching her cooking shows while I am reading St Mark’s Diary. Silke Heiss’ husband’s daring poetry collection. I try to find myself staring back at me on the page but all I can see are images of the Gulf war, the rooms of a psychiatric hospital in East London, a poet and a man trying to make sense of his disabling endogenous depression. It is myself that I feel sorry for because I am frightened. I think of the past Saturday. How airy and light the hall felt with its rows upon rows of black uncomfortable plastic chairs packed out. I heard nervous laughter and a head turned around and looked at me. I saw white teeth and a shock of short black hair. The head ran her fingers through her hair and opened her mouth again.
I saw a flash of gold in her mouth. Her friend turned around too, to survey the room and for a split second her eyes fell on me. She quickly turned around. I thought of the mushrooms I would fry in salted butter and garlic when I got home. The soda I would pour into a glass, drinking the fizzy cold drink standing in the kitchen alone with the backdoor open. Chocolate cupcakes on a plastic meat tray. The nice Muslim lady had run out of white paper plates. I felt serene as I sat back and listened to poetry. The lines filled my head with a black-and-white response. The sun inside my head turned black, the light was white. I felt a heat rise up in my chest as the poet’s son stood in the middle of the room and spoke about his childhood. I think he spoke about the house in which they lived.
I immediately thought about the house in which I live. I don’t have a light in my room. When the lights go out, I can’t see anything in the room. Just an inky black darkness in front of my face. I make mental notes that turn into floss. I turn onto my side and stare at the wall. There is an ocean inside my head.
I make my way to the back of the hall to stand in line and buy a copy of the poetry book that was launched. The poet’s son takes my money and I make small talk. He seems on the surface to be kind and gentle. The poet died of a heart attack. There is a waterfall in my eyes. The waterfall in my eyes falls into the lake into the poet who died of a heart attack son’s eyes. The lake vibrates. I stop talking to him, take my book, and make my way across to another man. The publisher of the book. I am animated when I talk to him. I use wild hand gestures. It feels as if I have been standing there next to him for an hour. It feels as if we are on such friendly terms that we’ve had coffee dates and lunches together. It takes a few seconds for me to return to this planet. He hands me his business card.
I told him to Google search me. He laughs. When I Google search his name, then his business and find the publishing company’s website I feel embarrassed. He only publishes professors. I am not educated. I have no credentials. I only have textbook knowledge and a lifetime of experience. And books. Many, many books, the memory that speaks to me of turmoil, trial and tribulation, challenge, difficulty and obstacle, nature that has a natural flow to it. I think of the photographer in the hall. Walking around with his snug jeans tight around his hips and his suave black leather jacket taking pictures. Quite a few times he stood next to me and took pictures of the people where I was sitting. Embarrassed schoolgirls. One hid her face behind her long braids. The air smells clean. The water is boiling.
People clear their throats. There are so many people. So many beautiful schoolgirls. I don’t remember looking like that. So many educators. Even medical doctors are present in the organisation. As I sat in my seat I thought to myself that I was too thin, too clever. Everybody knew who my father was. Everybody knew he was manic-depressive. It was not my father who had links to the organisation that received an invitation to the launch. It was I who had received one from one of the editors. I think about what I said to people at the launch.
“It must have been difficult for you to talk about your father here today,” I say.
It’s evening. I sit with a blanket around my shoulders on my father’s bed reading poetry on my cell phone. I listen to Ocean Vuong’s melodic voice talking about his mother and the war that brought her and his grandmother to America. He tells the interviewer that she could not read, that she could not understand why people would want to come and listen to his sad poems. It is a good thing I have a lot of time on my hands these days. I feel lost. There’s a clock inside my head, I want to tell you about Ocean Vuong. Listen to it, I want to tell him. Make it stop. Inside the clock is a primordial soup of alphabet letters. These letters form fragmented sentences that turn into lines seven syllables long.
Teddy Niagara comes to visit me on Wednesday afternoons at two o’clock. We speak about his clinical depression and poetry, mutual poet friends, what we are writing about, and the poetry workshops he conducts in a sub-economic area for high schoolers not far from where I live in gated suburbia. He tells me to listen to a poetry reading he is doing Thursday evening. I tune in but I’m late. I listen to Teddy reading his poems. Afterwards, there’s a girl who recites a poem about sexual assault. I turn deathly pale. I look at the colour of her skin. I look at the colour of my skin. She writes about her boyfriend taking a baseball bat and breaking that man’s teeth. I type in the comments section, “Deathblow.” She puts a heart at the bottom of the comment. Sindi wants me to recite a poem. She calls me out.
“Abigail, we see you. Read a poem. I’m a fan.” That’s Sindi Busuku, the award-winning poet. But I haven’t prepared anything. I don’t have anything in front of me. I wasn’t writing anything at the time of the reading, or making notes. I apologise. Then it is Sindi’s turn to apologise. She says that she didn’t mean to put me on the spot.
Life goes on. It’s inevitable. My latest book is available in Hungary. I drink in the lines on the page. I see a forest. Then I see a young galaxy that turns into a constellation behind my eyes.
*Some names have been changed to protect the identity of the person.