Fiction

A Tribute to Jean Rhys: Fiction by Abigail George

Image: Hartwig HKD via Flickr

I am in the beginning stages of writing ‘the novel’. I am caught up with memories. The memories of desire and Shura Wevill, my flesh, my blood, your stem ill and bitter. Sink deep into your grave my little bold skinned flower. So small with your weak limbs heiress in your mother’s arms. You killed an angel filthy exotic paranoid foreigner with your orange silks, bangles at your wrists. Known beloved, known neurotic, will you ever be forgiven? In death both of you will thrive at Ted Hughes’s bone-clinic and you will whisper that war, your majesty, is a crime. My dreamer, love poem, sonnet and my shell, my hell. Death is a monster, a shell, while the sea is a ghost. The air is beautiful isn’t it like a Paris soul. The combinations of water in a glass, the clarity of words, a white meringue of a beautiful dress, is it mine, is it mine?

My stories are fragmentary; my poetry is terrible because I say it is so it is so. My love for you is a blank thrill. It is dying. Shame. However, I have brought it upon myself you see. I dislike my conversation. I have drilled it into myself. Gas. This emptiness. Talent is my enemy. I wish to cry. You have left. Regard me no more as lover. I will take the promises you made to the grave. You will stand at the mouth of it, its purse. Together Shura and I will rest in eternity. I will cling to her. I do not need your soul. Our spirits are clouds, numb, celestial. Everything.

The earth is diminishing in front of my eyes. People have become puppets. Winter has power over my mood. There is no man on the moon. He has disappeared for good. The angels have seen to that. Only a feminist remains. She is fair. She is my gift to you, to Shura. No more harm will come to us now. My mouth is frozen. My lips are blue with cold. My limbs, my limbs. I cannot feel them. You chiselled them out of thin air of ghosts. I am distancing myself more and more from you. Evaporate. Your father is responsible for this. I am off the edge. Leaning towards bleeding intelligently, rain is a feast and so is morals. But you knew nothing of the latter brute, beast, traitor, and coward. It hurts that you hurt me, that you hurt Shura too. But what is pain my lotus flower? Sacrifices have to be made. Why always the vulnerable, the wounded, the sick and troubled? My beauty was accidental until glaciers came between us.

I wish I had destroyed you now, not romanced, and not seduced you. Now I only have the capacity within me for spring, to swim. Tel Aviv and Canada both distant memories. I trained myself to grow wise. The night is different now. I feel it all the time. Shura in my arms. We are both prisoners. I can never make plans. She will never grow old. Ted Hughes’s ugly duckling will never grow into a swan. She, my Shura, will never fall in love and whose fault is that? When it comes to the beekeeper’s daughter’s suicide, the glory of wisdom and ego shrunk to accommodate the villagers’ wounding spirits. She the significant one. She is my angelic conjured up myth. She who always tells me in her poetry to rise, rise again above volcano dreamers.

Liquid deep are the secrets of my heart. The stem of intimacy grows silently. Give me enough rope and surely, I will hang myself. The handmaiden’s pulse is there. The muscle is there like unfinished things from childhood. It pushes at the difficult thoughts I have. They have a hard appearance from the outside like a seduction theory, the blue steel of the sky, the land borders on God, perplexity, like poverty and death, the angelic dream of it. I am as serious as an ill tiger, and I laugh like a hyena in the face of the man on the moon. I am a coping lioness. My mother did not keep me from children who were rough. She wanted me to experience the world that humanity is a violent species. My mother left me there hanging on for dear life. As a child, the details of my life soon became embroidered by tortuous emptiness, the innocence of autumn cast out.

Bold smile through her great depression. Wife interrupted. Mother of Frieda and Nicholas Hughes. There was always a journey of moving forward worshipping the past. Where is the sun in an argument? Where is the physical body in flight in dream-mode? She saw the skylines of New York, had a London experience, and married an Englishman, a poet. Solitude and loneliness, being an introvert, should have been included in the commandments. Her bright faith and loyalty, the love she had for her children was like music from the heart. Her bright faith was as bright as the lights in Los Angeles. Her loyalty was a prize. The glory of her bravery was unbalanced, and her rage was that most rare thing. Sylvia Plath, daughter and poet, wife and mother, gone too soon to heaven. Melancholia and of the sky in her eyes and the other half of her gone to hell on earth. Bird, leaf, madness, jealousy, all symbols of life, of humanity.

And so we come to adulthood. Now her poetry educates young people’s minds now that she is no longer flesh, bone. I think a present-day Sylvia would be reluctant to be called beautiful, lonely, misguided, depressive, and intelligent. A Sylvia who lived a madness life, who fell ill at the end of her life, is a Sylvia whose heroism lives on in her poetry, her soul’s progress, the people who relate to its destination anywhere. I had siblings who played with lobsters in hand. For them seawater does not come with a map. Leaps of faith. The chill found in earth. The fellowship in ganglands. Drugged out of their minds. Finger happy on the trigger, trigger. Every waterfall a teardrop. Postures of gut symmetries. Beautiful things can grow there. Out of despair, the ugliness of shipwrecks. Like phoenixes rising out of ashes. I climbed a mountain. That is the history of lunacy for you. Found in the wilderness upon the land’s pale throne. Like a carcass found in an asylum of trees. After leaving Mr. Muirhead. Your shark-life is a hideous oblivion.

Waterfall, I do not know you, but I miss you. You were my absolute Pacific after having a nervous breakdown. I speak about honesty and intimacy in the same breath/hiss. You are a flight song thrown away to the caustic wind. I miss you as if I miss the Periodic Table, like science, the pouring rain and Alba. Threads of dandelions and the sea bird’s egg were my pound of flesh. With my shark teeth I stand in the Metro. I met Paris. Hemingway, Pound and T.S. Eliot’s Paris. Winter branches of the establishment. When I came home from Johannesburg, I dreamed of Ohio, eating green apples that smelled of cinnamon while working on the tangled mists of my first novel. But what my brain’s entire compass could reach was short fiction. Stories. I was an electric slave to stories made of fairy tales and forests, honour, grace and shelter, Homer, suffragette city, beliefs, violent winters, the face, the new life, the home of snow. Stories that left me torn between details of tragedy and a comic world. In my mother’s house in one hand I held thunder and in the other I held lightning and in both I held potential. The potential to destroy, the potential to sabotage, to self-sabotage, the potential to build. Build with kindness, build with limited jurisdiction, and build with innings, varied images. A can of peaches. Andy Warhol. Jean Michel Basquiat. Marilyn Monroe. Patrice Lumumba. Julius Malema. Perhaps Billy Joel was right when he wrote that we did not start the fire. It was always burning since the world was turning.

I do not dream of the rejection anymore although it knocks at the doors of all my writing opportunities. My three sample chapters of the manuscript, excerpts from larger works. Larger works like novellas. Perhaps my fiction is blank. Perhaps my novel means nothing. Perhaps it is a self-portrait of nothing. Perhaps I should go a-wintering, draw Buddha on a canvas, envisage the last pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, or brush the heat out of the news that frightened me out of rainy death. I will go fishing for you until my death. It is time for the show, for the pilgrimage, finding Isaiah in a loophole, the switch that will transform guts into grit into glory. I need to take possession of the tragedy of it all but not in that way. The way of the ice princess. How do people, writers, survive with love, without love, without the measure of loss? Let me let you in on a little known secret. Writers can go an entire lifetime without lovers. Their world becomes as natural as the weather, as nature, as the environment to them again. You gave me the world and I asked for absolutely nothing in return. I am constantly returning to this world too. You are my rain. My figurehead. I idolised you from afar my entire life. Of course, I understand how I mean nothing to you. In your world, I have no meaning. When sleep comes, you come to me again too and my dreams of you are glorious. Always glorious. Illusions have no flaws. You illuminate the world around me. I worship you still but I promise I will keep my distance.

Adolescence. Let us strip the icehouse, the wounded pilgrim, the wedding feast, the winter journal, the golden notebook, daughters and their mothers, cold shoulders, the comfort of strangers, of all of its truths. For every writer has a well of loneliness, a moveable feast, a façade when it comes to the end of the affair of empty pages. I did not have friends. I had dolls. A valley of them. The last time I saw my father well, he spoke about ideal neighbourliness. He was a firm believer in suburbia, ideal neighbourliness and then he fell in love with another woman, and now he has another family in another town. He says he wants to see me but this means that I will have to meet his new wife, his new family. I do not want that to happen. It means I will have to betray my mother. I cannot do that. It goes against everything I believe in. My father was a writer and now I write too. I do not know if this makes my mother sad. She does not smile anymore. She goes to church a lot. Last Sunday we had a vegetarian lunch. She has started to smoke again. She tells me she will kill me if she catches me smoking or stealing money from her. Stealing money from her purse and it is not my goddam business who she sleeps with. She says I am quiet these days. Too quiet which is why she bought me this journal and she wanted me to see you. She thinks I am special. My teachers thinks I am special. Even my father thinks I am special. All he can talk about is my ‘potential’. He did not just leave my mother, he left me too, but this detail seems to have left him speechless like winter revisited. Those are my favourite two words, ‘winter revisited’.

If anything bad ever seems to happen to my mother or me, I just shrug my shoulders and say that it is just winter revisited. I write in my notebook. When was the last time you saw your father? I pretend he has moved to Alaska, which is on the other side of the world as far as I am concerned. I make believe that he is not a few hours’ drive away. I mean, he can come and see me any time he likes. All I can think about when my mother smokes is lung cancer. Cancer with a capital C. Cancer wards. I am too old to play with dolls anymore. I have imaginary friends. The buxom and boy crazy Charlotte, Alice who is shy and introverted but who boys are secretly in love with because she will make the perfect girlfriend. I am kind and clever. Every year I win the lead role in the school play. If my mother is so hard on me it is because she knows me so well. Penelope is blonde. Our nickname is the ‘Blonde Girl Gang’. We are fierce. My father was educated, my mother says as if this was somehow her fault. The separation and then the divorce. He was insane to leave you, I tell my mother as if this would help her to stop crying. I died when your father left me, she tells me as if this in any way would help me. People’s lives are meant to be celebrated when they are alive, not dead, she says when we go and put flowers on her parents’ graves. When my mother really has the hell in for my dad, we go to the beach. When she slams the phone down on the hook hard and curses for the whole world to hear. There is always something pure about the day when we go to the beach. It clouds the ego.

My mother does not care that I do not have any friends to invite over to the house. That I do not wear her makeup. She says we are more like sisters anyway. She tells me everything. She says my poetry is like an elixir to her. I do not really know what that means. When I ask her what it does mean she says it means I fought for her and it meant a great deal to her that I did. All her life people had abandoned her or neglected her (like your father), she always adds but poetry saved her in her university days and that is why she calls my poetry ‘an elixir’. London and the whole experience of London was an elixir too. She wished I could experience too. She wished she had the kind of money for us to travel to nice places like that. My mother is not beautiful anymore. She has not been taking care of herself. I wonder when my home life will return to normality. I am in love but he does not give me a second look. That is okay, there are many of us in the class. He has papers to mark. Lessons to plan. I cannot stop thinking of him. The other girls leave me alone. Poetry saves me. It disconnects me from the rest of the world. I wish I could tell my mother to look good even if it hurts. Sometimes I do not know who is the kid and who is the grown up. She loves to remind me that we are not Americans but that we are South Africans. I am not as pretty as my mother is. I think that is why my father married her. For her looks. Maybe my father would be able to help me with my first love but people lose their jobs if they date their students. At the beach, my mother’s limbs are graceful. We forget about the dirty dishes in the kitchen sink.

‘We are not Americans. We are South Africans. What is wrong with going to a South African university? Gabs, am I still skinny?’ My mother asks me. I roll my eyes. She probably knows that I am rolling my eyes. It is always Gabs when her depression is at its peak.

‘I do not fit in at school. Maybe I should go to an all girls’ school.’

‘Hush now Gabs. What is all this about? Your English teacher that you are mooning about. I am sure that all the girls who are in your class moon about him as well. Mooning about someone is an art form. I know. Let us go to the beach. Let us go swimming.’

‘Mom, I do not want to go swimming. I am too chubby to go swimming.’

‘That doctor. I will kill him for calling you obese.’

My mother is a young girl at the beach. We sit on a bench. She smiles. She laughs. She keeps her hair back with a barrette. She uses words like ‘cute’ and ‘it must be hot like a sauna out there’. On the way home, we stop at the shop to pick up bread, soap, tea, cans of tuna fish and meat. Our ritual. Fear of failure in my life has become powerful. Cutting is mythical. Blade across skin for everything that I have lost. My mother says that in order for me to make friends I have to choose people who challenge me. People do not want to feel anchored in tragedy all the time. At the hospital, there is truth, lies and rooms but my mother is adamant that this will help me. I should talk about it. God knows, she should talk about it too but her mother said it was not normal for a girl of her age to be out on her own in the world unravelling. My mother and my grandmother think that I am carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. All I want is someone to talk to about grief, sex, marriage, my mother hiding bottles of wine away where she thinks I cannot find them, the cabernet, and the merlot. I want someone to share photo albums with. I want to share a beer with someone. I wonder if my English teacher drinks beer. I yearn for the trace of adolescence introducing a blank slate but also a tormented process, an intense state, a satellite project of winter revisited.

‘Are you sad? Do you miss your dad?’

Just when I think it becomes all about me it becomes all about her. I am watching television. I do not watch love stories when I am with my mother. She usually starts to cry.

‘We are family. It is just you and me but come to think we are more like sisters than mother and daughter.’

I am starting to hate her now for saying that.

‘Come let me do something with your hair. You have beautiful hair Gabs. You have my hair.’

The translation of pain has never felt so blue. Is this love, an elegant, truthful, sincere mouthful of love? It is my turn to cook. I cook every night. If I did not cook, I would go hungry. My mother eats like a bird. There is a sense of freedom in defrosting the frozen meat. Freedom from my mother and my grandmother. In childhood, why is beauty like champagne, pale sea light, a spotlight, and searchlight. I have so much to do and to see. My love is a tiger burning bright like a ward or an illness or recovery or relapse. All men are tigers (tigers in bed).

‘Sardines on toast, Gabs? It is your favourite.’

‘No thank you.’

‘More for me then. Are you not hungry?’

‘I am on a diet.’

‘Every week it is a new diet. This craze is not good for you.’

‘Mum, you are not helping. There are things that I am supposed to eat, that are good for me and there are things that I am not supposed to eat, that are bad for me. I have to be strict. Doctor’s orders.’

‘Every doctor is like your father, a philosopher.’

I wanted to tell her to go to hell but I knew that would just hurt her feelings. I wanted to tell her to leave me alone, that I had my own problems, but she would not understand. I knew she would just look at me with a hurt look on her face. Her spiritual meetings and church had become important to her. Every night we prayed. We even prayed for my father and his new family. Prayer was like an infection with my mother. Praying with my mother felt like I was being brainwashed.

‘Do not even think that you are falling into something called love when you think about him or them.’

‘What are you talking about?’ That is me disgruntled.

‘I am talking about your English teachers.’

‘Have you have been reading my journal?’ That is me again puzzled.

‘You are a strange, strange girl. Maybe your grandmother was right. Maybe you should speak to someone.’

‘You are a weird mother! Do I not get any privacy in this house at all?’

‘I am licking you into shape. You need to be licked into shape.’

‘You have no idea what you are talking about.’

‘I am your mother. This is my house and you must never forget that. I have every right to read anything and everything in my house.’

Dad was beautiful. Dad was as beautiful as a parachute, mountains, nature. As beautiful as words like ‘chaff’, ‘climate’, ‘compulsion’ and ‘immortality’. Dad was a goner and in his place was a chain-smoking peacock with dolphin thighs. I remember when he used to take me for long drives in his sedan on a Sunday afternoon. I would stare out of the window at the yellow sunlight; feel the warm texture of the sun on my already brown arms. I would stare at the houses big and small, traffic, and fields. We would make our way home late afternoon after my mother had rested. My father made his mark on me the same way Noah made his mark on civilization.

‘Look at me. I am crazy,’ my mother said wiping her tears and putting her cigarette out.

‘No, no, you are not crazy.’ I would have hugged my mother but she had been wearing the same clothes for the past three days.

‘I am still in love with your father, you know.’

‘I know. I am still in love with him too. I have made peace with it. It is never going to change,’ I answered in reply. I wanted to ask her if she wanted to pray. This was the perfect time and place to pray.

‘Inside I am dying, Gabs. It is as if I have cancer or something. Love, human nature, childhood. There is a measure of loss in all of those things. It is as if I need to have it cut out of myself, you know.’

I did not know what to say. All I did was put the kettle on, nod my head, pat her hand, and rub her back, her shoulders. You become clumsy after loss, watching leaves fall, leaving the cinema, and mourning the holocaust.

IMAGE: Hartwig HKD

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