The psychiatrist who studied in Vienna had wild hair like Einstein. Gerda had been prepared for an eventuality of this magnitude. She was the one who had been prepared. Not me. And there was a part of me that felt like a failure. I had been completely blindsided. I had not seen the diagnosis coming. Not from a mile away. My beautiful, darling daughter. My darling, darling daughter was a manic depressive just like me. Bipolar. Bipolar. Bipolar. I was struck dumb. Speechless. What could I say? How could I comfort her? She hated school. She hated every minute and every second of it. A monumental waste of her time, she said. She already knew that everything she was being taught came out of a textbook that supported the cause of a colonial master. That supported a White cause. A liberal’s issues. Not hers by a long shot. We had to do a lot of talking, and listening, and having more conversations behind a closed bedroom door at night to try and convince her to stay in school.
There were lots of tears. Everybody cried. There were arguments. There were times when she stayed with her aunt in Johannesburg and we would be under the false impression that now everything would be all right again in her world. We had dreams for me. She was brought up with norms and values. And we didn’t, couldn’t just let her throw her life away like that. Somehow, somewhere when she was fifteen years old she had written away to the London Film School. ‘So she wants to run away to London now.’ Gerda sighed. She wore a perplexed look on her face, chewing her bottom lip in pensive mode. I thought back to Abigail’s last words of the conversation the three of us had, mother, father, with their rebellious, fiercely intelligent, highly temperamental daughter. ‘I hate you.’ She almost spat. ‘You’re killing me. If I stay here I’ll die. You’ll see. I’ll show all of you. I’ll kill myself if I don’t go to film school. I want to go to London.’
Gerda had more intuition, knowledge and insight into how females thought and bonded and suddenly at midnight she bloomed. Her face pale in the moonlight, with aquiline features that her daughter Abigail had inherited from her but not her tennis legs or her mother’s love for that game. I couldn’t make out her face but I knew it was shining full of love for me, and for our daughter. All three of our children had been conceived in love.
‘Where will she stay? Where will she sleep? What will she eat every day for breakfast, lunch, and supper? Is she sleeping now I wonder? She just sits glued in front of that television all hours of the day and night. Ambrose, tell me, what do you think I should do? We? Us? She’ll never be accepted. I read her motivation application letter. It’s terrible. But if I say that to her it will break her heart. She’s fifteen going on sixteen.’
Back and forth my flashbacks go. Presently we are here. The house is quiet, haunted by ghosts from the past. Stephen. Jean. Magdalene. My parents. Gerda’s own mother and father passed away when Abigail was still a baby. Baby Ethan is sleeping soundly between his parents on their double bed. He is a real busybody. He only has eyes for his mother. Already he has two milk teeth which has everyone in a frenzy in the household.
I sometimes wish that I had listened more, praised her cooking skills (even though she burnt the pots more times than I could keep track of), and given more attention to my wife. Had not treated her like I had treated all the women in my life. Indentured slave girls only there to make me tea, be my secretary, flirt with. Women who would stroke my ego given the chance. She had given me everything of herself that she could as a wife, but I had not been completely open with her. Only in retrospect when I look back at the events of the past decade and how they had shaped all three of our children’s futures did I see how selfish and arrogant I had been.
I had not come clean. Pharmaceuticals cannot wash away sins. With my silence I had passed down three life sentences. I wish I had done something. Said anything to console my wife. It would be twenty years until we got our daughter back. Have I made Gerda happy, and what about my children, are they happy? Are they successful? Have my children fulfilled all their childhood goals? People change from one generation to the next. That’s the thing with people, milestones and events. They are always changing, and yet always staying the same. I thought I would be my daughter’s anchor in that moment like my mother had been in mine.
‘Fine. If you want to go then leave. We won’t stand in your way if this is going to make you happy.’ I said with my eyes meeting the floor we covered in carpet.
I didn’t want her to see the dejection in my eyes. I would miss her laughter, our talks, heated discussions, and debates. Mostly I would miss her presence. But she was depressed. She hated school. She had done very badly in the exams. Magdalene was still alive then. So Swaziland it was then for O and A levels and then the London Film School that is if she could get a British Council scholarship if she was lucky.
My mother had been my anchor throughout my depressive episodes. The crushing highs that took me to the wuthering heights of Rhodes University and London and the numbing, frustrating lows that took me to my bed. Sometimes I would just lay on the bed still in my suit. My body was not sore, did not feel tired, my eyes were burning, but sleep would not come, only a numb sensation starting from the top of my head that would make its way down to the tips of my toes. Every parent wants to protect their child, sometimes protect them from everything. The world isn’t all bad. Tomorrow isn’t going to be all doom and gloom like today was. There are good people in this world who are just as affected by sickness, chronic illness, cancers, and diseases.
Madness? Madness! What is madness? What a question! Do people question John Nash? Do they call him mad, insane, tell him that he’s weird? Do they question this genius’s sanity, his intelligence, or do they just write him off as wired differently from the rest of the human race. Is he an anomaly? One evening my children came to me. My son looked at me. Tall, dark, and handsome, one would be forgiven for thinking his introversion is arrogance he said, ‘Dad. It’s time for you to sit down and write your story. Write your memoir. Write your autobiography if you will.’ To tell you the truth it has been two years now, nearly three. I can’t clearly recall if that conversation ever took place.
I can’t remember who said what, when, the how I was going to go about it. I have written about depression. I have written about mental health. I have written books about South End and the promulgation of the Group Areas Act. The aftermath of the forced removals. To be honest with you people stood in line for me sign that book. My guess that that was a sign. A sign from God. I paid attention. I listened. And I turned my attentions elsewhere to committee meetings, reading the newspapers. People just didn’t like me to talk about apartheid. Well, South End The Aftermath. That book quietly disappeared, and went out of print. People just weren’t into that vibe. The book wasn’t giving off good vibrations so people weren’t turning up to buy that book. But out of everything that I have written so far that book is my favourite. I have written about depression before from a sufferer’s perspective, and that little book turned out to be an enormous bit of loose cannon, then a diamond in the rough, and then a little gem, a treasure of a book.
People like to romanticise apartheid now but I don’t. They put up pictures, photographs, paintings of struggle heroes and heroines in museums. There are public holidays, streets, buildings, foundations, bursaries, books, poetry, memoirs, autobiographies named after them, written in memory of them and some of them are even given honorary doctorates. Some posthumously. All I think about these days in the autumn of my years as I watch television at night, bits and pieces of the news, well, it means absolutely nothing to me. Climate change, global warning, it’s just the recession that has hit us all the hardest. My friends are no longer here. Most of them have passed on. I remember them fondly. Sometimes with tears in my eyes. I’m an old man now. I’m losing my hair. My wife, young and pretty. She will always be young and pretty to me. The blushing bride in her white lace on her wedding day. I remember I lost one of my white gloves between signing the register (I have a Scout’s knot in my throat now when I think back to my wedding day. My own children won’t understand this. They won’t understand what married life is until my son steps over that threshold with his new wife. Until my girls have said, ‘In sickness and health. Till death do us part.’
Come hell or high water I will be here for them all until the day I can’t be here anymore. I do what I can. I put the apron on and wash the dishes. Dry them carefully. Pack them away. The women in this house are always rearranging the furniture in the kitchen. But that has nothing to do with me. I play my part. I have a role to play in this family. I am the patriarch of this household. I am father. I am uncle. I am nurturer, caretaker, provider, and breadwinner. If we must eat pies for supper, then I walk down the road and buy them. I swing my arms. I walk much more these days than I did before but not far. Not far.) So now where was I? Right. I lost my white glove and Gerda was laughing at me. I got lucky. I didn’t really deserve her you know what with everything I put her and the children through. But somehow we made it to the other side. She’s angelic. She is. My wife. My wife. My wife. Abigail is the oldest and the brightest star in my universe. My Beethoven and my Kubrick. She has been through so much. Up streets and down streets. Johannesburg and Swaziland. Film school. School after school after school.
Psychometric tests. She’s done them all, and they have all said the same thing. She’s been psychoanalysed to death by psychologist after psychologist but she has a fighting spirit. All my children have fighting spirits. My son has done the impossible. He has given me an heir to the throne. Words can’t express what I feel when I look at his son. My son. My son and his son. Abigail, well, I think she thinks too much (she’s curious about everything, every impulse that the human species has, everything negative that happens in the world, the aftershocks are always of biblical proportions. I worry for her. Her personality is different. She lives by a completely different set of rules. People who live with depression often do live a life made up with a mind-set of elegant mathematics. She doesn’t think like a woman. My son and daughter are both complex creatures. Their mother elegant, and cold. When she descended upon Port Elizabeth after the honeymoon she seemed so exotic, so out of place here but she soon picked out furniture for out flat. Made it comfy. We had so many plans, dreams and goals. It was very, very difficult to conceive children.
It took us five years and then we had Abigail, who was followed by another short stop and then my son, my son. Ambrose, my son. He is my namesake. He is my pride and joy. All I do these days is talk, and talk, and talk. Mostly about the past before I forget. I have to talk about the past before I forget. I have to remember to write down everything I say because if I forget then who will remember the forced removals, South End, Fairview (where my mother had property, a domestic worker of all people, a seamstress at one of the best high schools in the country. Collegiate High School. She saved her money for a rainy day and bought land.) I think if you want to romanticise anything don’t romanticise your education, romanticise your culture, your heritage instead. Don’t romanticise mental illness, your London experience, or your European experience, visits to castles, trips in gondolas, the palace of Versailles, romanticise your family life, your domestic duties. Romanticise writing.
Abigail is a poet. My second daughter has done very well for herself. Well, she lives in Johannesburg, works in a bank. She’s moneyed. Now she’s a socialite, a connoisseur if I ever saw one. I just didn’t mean to bring up one. If I don’t write nobody will remember anything about the Coloured identity, intelligentsia, psyche and intellect in the northern areas from my generation. We’ll all be six feet under, pushing up daisies pretty soon. And then what? Ghosts. Getting a dead man to tell you a story about his childhood days is like squeezing blood from a stone. Have you ever tried squeezing blood from a stone? I remember when I was writing up my historical research about the London Missionary Society the state of mind I was in. I was on a hypomanic high while I was writing most of it. Nearing a complete collapse. I thought my professor would tell me, ‘Ambrose, what is this? It’s a complete and utter disaster from start to finish’. But I persevered. He’s in Canada now or dead.
But I give my peace wherever he is. He was a part of my life for a very long time. I appreciated all his help. He was very liberal of course in his ideas about politics of course. We would never have tea together. That’s what I mean. Sometimes after driving hours from Port Elizabeth to Grahamstown after making the trip I would make my way to his office and to my utter astonishment he would not be there. The door would be locked. It would sometimes bring tears to my eyes. Yes. He made me cry. For ten years up and down. I was principal at the time at a public school in a sub-economic area. Gelvandale Senior Secondary High School (GSSHS). I taught the kids there to reach for the stars. I can never seem to place names to all the faces who stop me in the street or who kindly offer me a lift home. I take their hand. And in their faces even when I don’t recognise them all I see is affection, honesty, and gratitude for what I taught them, for what I said, even though I was tough on them.
I sometimes took a lot of heat for what I said from Inspectors, from irate parents who would come to see me after I had given their angel six of the best. There was no detention in those days. Corporal punishment wasn’t abhorred as it is now. I loved those kids like I loved my three children at home. Hundreds and hundreds of them. Where are all of them now, I wonder to myself sometimes? Are they all successful? Are they making money? Are they paying their mortgages, seeing to the bills, or are they unemployed? In the good old days when we had a near perfectly run education system even in the Northern Areas (even though it was under an apartheid government run by Coloured Affairs) many of my schoolkids made their way to universities overseas. Many of them live there now, and are raising their own families there now. Many have it too easy. They’re living the easy life.
And they’ve completely erased the past. The poverty, the spiritual poverty, the hunger, the desire to learn on the faces of the children who came from much more impoverished homes. Matchstick houses we called them in those days. They’re still standing in the Northern Areas to this day, a symbol of racial hatred and inequality for all the world to see. Our society is traumatised. People are traumatised. The youth are affected mostly by drugs. The drug of choice these days for Coloured youth is tik. Babies are having babies. More and more children are being born out of wedlock. Where is this taking place? In the northern areas.