Fiction

Abigail George: The Split Personalities of Elizabeth Donkin

Photo by Amin Moshrefi on Unsplash

I had a wood when I was a child. There was a forest near my childhood home. At night, before I would blow my lamp out, I would stare out into that darkness that seemed to be stalking me. Forever stalking me, do you understand? It would suit my mood and I would will myself not to dream. To summon angels instead to surround my bed so I would not have bad dreams. Does that make any sense to you? I would find myself in a field surrounded by farmers ploughing it. Totally ignoring me. A little girl. An English girl who would grow up to be a lady. I would not play with my boy cousins. They were too rough. My husband, my husband understands me gloriously, ingloriously. He makes me feel as if I am a real person. He is an Elijah. I would have cool thoughts when I was a child. Then the morning sun would delicately ripen everything inside my childhood bedroom. Soft, sweet gentle light. How I long for you and nurse? How I long for my nursery and for nursery food?

I am greedy for the flame of life in the veins of my physical body. I am in my quarters again. Rufane kissed me chastely. He kissed my forehead, my wrists and then I was in a trance, said I was so pale, asked me did I have anything to eat. He is like a child always wanting my attention, my approval for everything. I am a wife so I must give in and when he leaves me, I am quite alone with my thoughts and I can already feel the heat, the genuine warmth of Africa rising in my blood. It is wonderful. Beautiful like ash settling on the ground after a bonfire and the air still warm after the fire has died down. This warmth, it is spreading throughout my body, my arms, my shoulders, my knees, legs and the chambers of my heart. It is a physical assault. It is a sacrifice on my part. I feel a burning sensation now when I have written down too much of the spasms that go throughout my body. Stress, the doctor said. Nothing to worry too much about. Nothing that travelling to a new world cannot cure.

Halt! I cannot stand the smell of this fish pie even though it reminds me of home. Now watch your salt intake. The doctor said not too little of this, not too much of that. Poor fish. Served up as grub for me. Their tails so innocent. I can imagine them flapping in water. Gills in need of air, nothing to quieten down that thirst. I need to eat. I know that and I feel so weak if I do not put anything past my lips but the food tastes bland. There is a fury in me when I feel so weak. I know I have faults and weaknesses now. I have limits but I do not think my poor, longsuffering husband can understand this. As a wife now, I have limits. When he burns my skin that fabric, and that tapestry ever so gently I think he needs to be reminded of that fact. Not of my innocence but of my own self-control. He talks of my radiance when he is in that mood. He talks of my secret beauty. He talks of his guilt too of taking me away from the only home I have ever known but he also talks of a new life in Africa! Africa! The Cape.

Everything in moderation especially the diet and exercise. Blood needs food and nutrients. All of our departures from a modern world have been left behind. Perhaps we will have fruit trees. Whole orchards of them. Skies exposes all of us. The sunlight. The more we are exposed to it the more the flames of the sun burn us. It licks our skin. Sometimes in the morning, I like to walk from side to side of the boat knowing that everyone is watching me. Then I can eat my boiled egg and toast and think that the world is not so bad.

I forget what the doctor says sometimes. How many times a day must I rest, take to my bed, draw the curtains, watch what I eat? Do not eat too much protein? Do not eat much fatty and rich duck, as it will somehow end up in my blood? In a new land how will we live, how will I survive? All I know is London. All I know is London society. Now this ship. This boat sailing on the open water rocking from side to side making me feel queasy and sick to my stomach. There are good days when I can walk from one side of the ship to the next and I can believe in anything that Rufane is telling me. The children we will have. He has so much hope in him. So much love. Next to him, I am cumbersome. Next to me, he is majestic. It is as if overnight on this boat I have become very old, and frail. My bones are a frilled delicacy. I feel the cold. It is winter. It is a winter sun but my body longs for the moonlight too as much as I long for my husband Rufane smiling. I am afraid that I do not make him smile anymore.

I remember every word he said. Forget this place of weeping. It is a stranger to the heart. We will build empires of gold. She was tired of wondering if he had ever loved her at all. I am in awe of people who make a personal commitment to each other. It is becoming hazy. A new future beckons. I move silently toward it. Splendidly, avoiding the past neatly. I am dreaming. I am a child again. The cat is back on the garden wall. It is black. Sometimes it prances about, sometimes I find it sleeping, curled up in a foetal position, and sometimes it is purring when stroked between the ears. All loved up even after the ancient wisdom of eating. I pull her close to me. Unlike man, she is a friend. It is not easy to start over. All I wanted was a friend but I hear these voices all around me. The psychiatrist stared at me in the face with a sad, defeatist’s look anticipating the change in my mood and so I was cast off into the void. Sailing in the dark with every narcissistic impulse that the human condition has been afflicted with.

I am tragic. I am a tragedy in the works I am afraid. Half the time I am a scared cat. I thought that love was so noble, that it could heal anything and that the sanctity of marriage was ingenuous. They are only romanticised ideals of love. Nothing more. Nothing less. I will never leave this place. He has called it Port Elizabeth, South Africa. A part of me does not want to go but wants the order and routine of our old life. Elizabeth and Rufane Donkin invited to so and so’s soiree. I am a sleeping beauty and other stories. Ghost stories. You are so brave. A voice tells me. Whispers. Sings melodically or in the dead of night out of tune. I know that much is true. Damages. Traffic. Keats is pure and part rebel. I am imagining life after twenty something and then I cannot imagine it. Feeling much more alive than I am already. There is the darkness and the light. One is more forgiving than the other is. People are moving in the dark. Stick figures behind trees. The air is wet.

Now I am the girl in love with the volcano. I no longer require myself as being part of the watershed system. I perform a brutal demonstration of an invisible people. Here humanity has no colour or a demonstration of an invisible people, which will leave you weak at the knees. I have made mistakes. I am not a perfect picture. You cannot always put a name to a face. I no longer keep it all locked away inside it. Some days the illness feel like a paperweight, other days I cannot see it like a shadow boxer caught between the bloodlines of the other player. A lesson in humility is learning never to let go. Is this a confession? Take me away from all of this, from all of here. I cannot live without you but she was afraid, deathly afraid of was that the illness would still be here in the morning. That the illness would want to possess her or own her. You don’t own me. Don’t forget that. Soon the illness would slip away into the shadows before the sun came up and that suited her. Female writers were never prosaic about love up to a point. Even in their prose.

If she were a beautiful woman, she would be vain instead she is as plain as paper. About love, even in the prose, that art, they are tools of seduction, figures of women and men who are considered glorified contemporary masters of disguise. I need my poets as I need my potatoes. The way women would need their calcium supplement and self-defence classes in the twentieth century onwards. Yes, I am a ghost now and what of it. What if I haunt and go around in my old-fashioned clothes changing the temperature in the air? I do not have to anchor myself to anything. Gravity means nothing to me and neither does your personal space. Instead, it becomes something that I become attached to. There are no footsteps when I am around. The flux or void in my eyes no longer have windows to my soul fortunately in my case. I am Elizabeth Donkin. Rufane Donkin’s longsuffering wife. The acting-governor of the Cape’s wife. This pageant of emotion that is coursing through my veins. What is it? This empowering feeling.

Watch how I lift the veil over the landscape of England behind me with her lush green hills. Where will I begin? With the ripples on the water, the tide, the moon and her light. What kind of light is this that reveals savages and natives to me, to us with their personal velocity? A husband and wife with their English mannerisms. There is a swelling of poetry inside my head. English poets. I am Elizabeth. There is a disharmony in the heat. I remain intrigued by them. The natives. They must think I am a pale goddess. It is a new day. It is a new land. If I lived to a ripe old age in another century then perhaps my name would have been Bessie after Bessie Head after South Africa had become a democracy and a much more integrated society. What would she do with him then, a husband? He would expect her to cook and clean for her. Hah! This Bessie would think to herself. Not this feminist but feminist is not even a word yet. We are in a century behind the times. It is the 1820’s.

If my name was Emily and I was in a treatment centre for eating disorders perhaps this time of the evening I would be lighting a cigarette and taking a long drag on it. Biting a nail absentmindedly. Willing myself not to cry for unfulfilled desires, children, happiness, the final test. Instead, I am a ghost with an English accent, an English ghost story. My airs and graces smelling like a rose garden. I dreamed that Rufane was perfect. He was in his own way. I was in mine. I am burdened in some ways. More than the general population. Tonight, I am on that boat again. Eating in my quarters. Alone. In rhythmic despair. Dreaming of oceanic patterns on walls.

 

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Photo by Amin Moshrefi on Unsplash

About the author

Abigail George

Abigail George’s fiction was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She briefly studied film at Newtown Film and Television School in Johannesburg. She is the recipient of grants from the National Arts Council, Johannesburg, Centre for the Book in Cape Town, and ECPACC (Eastern Cape Provincial Arts and Culture Council) in East London. She has been widely published from Australia, to Finland to Nigeria, and New Delhi, India to Istanbul, Turkey and Wales.
Her blog African Renaissance can be found online in Modern Diplomacy under Topics.
She contributed for a year to a symposium on Ovi Magazine: Finland’s English Online Magazine. She is a poet, fiction writer, feminist thinker, essayist, and a blogger at Goodreads.

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