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Abigail George: Beautiful Girls Who Smoke In Public Toilets

Rebecca knew how to arrange her hair, how to please a man, how to make an entrance, how to win souls during happy hour at the hotel where she sang to make ends meet. She had been a beautiful child. Her own mother would have gone as far as to say that she had been difficult. To raise her precocious daughter on her own.

‘Try and understand I do not want to hurt you mum. I want to make my own way in this world and I have to do that regardless of what you think of me.’

You are a terrible disappointment to me and your father. She knew that that was what her mother was really saying, even thinking when she looked at her these days. Look at what your sister and brother have done with their lives. Look at what you have done with yours. You are not happy. You have nothing to show for yourself. What are you going to say one day when you are alone and we are no longer there to look after you, to care for you, to drive you up and down? I mean really, you make our life hell and we are too old now. Too old for this. An old man and an old woman. What is loneliness anyway? What is having a husband and children anyway? You can say things like that in your twenties but not your thirties and certainly not your forties. You are terrible. We all want to change. We all want to see change, as we grow older but you have no idea of how to transform the external image of your inner and outer self. You have no idea of how to transform other people’s opinions about who you are. To your father you are still his child, his baby but it is time that you grew up and understood your place in the world. You know what the world thinks of you. The world thinks that you are a failure. Rebecca, you are your father’s daughter. The passage into the volcano. When you were in primary, you were so bright, so happy. I loved everything about you then. Smoking is bad for you and it is bad for the child too. I made many sacrifices for you as a child and you cannot even do this one for your child. Your own flesh and blood. Rebecca, you just love having all this drama in your life. Sometimes I cannot believe I even gave birth to you.

‘You are wrong about me.’ She wanted to tell the world, but especially her mother. Shout it out. Scream it out at the top of her lungs from the rooftops. She knew what the world thought of her. That she was sad and pathetic. She had little or rather no money but she had a voice. She could sing. She had an imagination. No prospects. She knew what it was to live with the illusion of coming from a happy family. She knew what she did not want for her own child. A family that was psychologically dysfunctional. Her father was never the same again after he came home from the hospital. After the shock treatment. How do adult children grow (when found lying down on the grassy fields of the tigers of their childhood)? In shadows of darkness that are not playful but hateful and spiteful effigies. Ghosts that haunt them. Turning their once golden dreams into nightmares. Depression rivals madness. Despair and despondency are the perfect match. There is mother and daughter (no longer foes). Every family in every suburb has a scrapbook containing childhood. Some kind of disability. A house lived with every kind. Hyperthyroidism, diabetes. Blood pressure. Renal impairment. Asthma. It was in the genes. Bipolar. Mental illness was boarding there (an entire mansion of it). Father and daughter. Mother and wife. All that cigarette smoke in high school was bad for me. Shakespeare goes in one ear. Out the other. Jazz and all of that.

Even the lifeless page is not so lifeless after all. Rather like mania days. Parachutes of flowers bloom (in my mother’s garden). Red cannas. A pen is like a halo of Swiss army knives. I have my armour. It is black. Armed with diaries. Black notebooks. How peaceful and orderly is the sun. Can I keep it on all night long?

I knew he was a man and he knew I was a woman but I was a different kind of woman. An intellectual. 

After Rebecca Sharp’s father left for good, she was raised in the church anyway. Her mother would forget that vagabond with the dreamy eyes who had stolen her heart but she would not forget Jesus Christ. She had a young child who she had left with relatives long ago. Verona sang her heart out, gyrating her hips, sashaying up and down the stage like it was Broadway not a cheap hotel. She was just a lounge singer in a bar or a hotel from the back streets of the Northern Areas of the Eastern Cape in South Africa. She would look into the eyes of the men who came into the bar in the evenings when they knocked off work and they would either meet her gaze as she sang Golden Oldies or look away and ‘make love’ to their ‘old fashioned’. She could see their scars. Her father ran away. Her mother worked for a rich white family. Took in washing. I do not want to live like that Rebecca Sharp thought to herself. I want to sing. Men will pay good money for that in a hotel. These are the cards that life has dealt me; she would tell herself in her dressing room at night before she took to the stage. She knew as she grew older her beauty would fade. Makeup, powder, the more expensive rouge, her creamy lipsticks, heels and wigs would never be enough. Every night when she took to the stage, she wore another costume. She would wear her stockings until there were holes in them. Poured a confident and elegant young woman into heels.

She knew in the end she would lose all the benefits that singing had brought to her. Lovers. Lovers with money. She knew if her mother was still alive what she would say. Rebecca Sharp, I did not bring you up so that you could use the talent that Jesus Christ Himself blessed you with to be a lounge singer.

Before the world was overwhelmed by climate change, global warming, and the lack of mother-love there was Rebecca Sharp singing her heart out. She knew the regulars. They would nod their hello. They would call out their favourite tunes to the piano man who would just look to Rebecca for her approval. She would talk sometimes in between her sessions. Sometimes when she felt inspired, she even belted out Amazing Grace. That was the night that changed her life forever. When she was raped in the alley. She would always get a drunken chorus of hallelujahs when she did that (singing gospel). She never spoke about the abuse. You want more, you pay the next time, you bastard.

One night she was caught unawares as she made her way home through an alleyway. Get off me. Get off me. She screamed her lungs out until she lost her voice. Mummy warned me about this. She thought. I should have listened. I should have listened. She said over and over again inside her head. Afterwards she was careful. She would make her way home to her one room apartment in the early hours of the morning leaving behind her beautiful wigs, the heavy perfume that smelled like incense burning.

Do not abuse your children, love your children like Jesus Christ loves us all, the minister said. That was what the minister said or something like that. She did not go to church anymore. When she did the women would gang up around her, with their arms around their children and stare at her until Verona would feel ashamed of herself. The people, and events in the history of South Africa and in an African context were changing but Rebecca Sharp never changed. Why would she when she had powder and the power of a wig. Another costume. Another role to play.

As she grew older her voice sounded (and tasted) like cigarettes and single malt whiskies. Gritty and full of truth. When she sang about heartache, she poured out her soul. When Rebecca Sharp sang an electric energy lit up the room and everybody’s state of mind changed. The owner of the hotel would ask in a high-pitched voice if there was more ice and to keep the booze coming. In the end Miss Sharp finds healing and therapy through singing. She goes home. Home to her mother, she gave up her one room flat in Central. Leaves that lifestyle behind her and faces up to the responsibilities of looking after her small child.


Image: remixed

Abigail George
Abigail George
South African Abigail George is a blogger, essayist, short story writer, screenwriter, novelist, and poet. She briefly studied film in Johannesburg. She has two film projects in development and is the recipient of two grants from the National Arts Council, one from the Centre for the Book and another from ECPACC. Her publishers are Tendai Rinos Mwanaka (Zimbabwe, Mwanaka Media and Publishing or Mmap), Xavier Hennekinne (Australia/New Zealand, Gazebo Books), and Thanos Kalamidas (Finland, Ovi). Her literary representative is Morten Rand. She is a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net nominated, and European Union Poetry Prize longlisted poet. Her poem “The Accident” was Identity Theory's Editor's Choice for Spring. Ink Sweat and Tears chose her poem “When light poured into me at the swimming pool” as a September Pick of the Month, and she recently made the shortlist of the Writing Ukraine Prize 2023. She is a poet/writer who believes in the transformative, restorative and healing powers of words. Her latest book is Letter To Petya Dubarova (Australia/New Zealand, Gazebo Books). Young Galaxies (a poetry book) was released in 2023 from Mmap and a memoir When Bad Mothers Happen is forthcoming. “Clarissa, Hector and Septimus Redefined” was recently published by Novelty Fiction in Kindle format.

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