Fiction

Bessie Head: A Short Story by Abigail George

She is a poet and a writer. The English language – words, books, reading poets and other writers and journalists – holds, mesmerizes and transfixes her. She is daily consumed by nighttime terrors that give rise to depression, oftentimes writer’s block and debilitating slumps that she can’t seem to shake off. She knows she is different from other women of her generation. It came from her childhood.

During the day she is the picture of innocence. Her imagination is vivid; her mind is always in a dream-like state. She radiates an air of vulnerability, collects stories from conversations that she hears in passing and articles in the newspaper. Her ideas are like static electricity. They have a life of their own. They give way to moods, tension, sparks and a fierce temper.

Her skin is ruddy and brown. She is not caught up with the rudiments of femininity. Pretty dresses; sundresses with flowers on, straw hats, make-up, hair all done up in a sea of the heavy perfumed mist of spray at a popular hair salon frequented by sophisticated, beautiful and elegant coloured women.

She is not proud of her smoking habit but it makes her feel less stressed out in situations when she feels she is losing control; when she is fighting for approval or acceptance from whom she craves it. It calms her down like a tonic. Although she realises it is addictive she placates herself and says, “at least it’s not pills.” The colour of her skin made her think she was not a beautiful child when she was growing up in Durban. She had often wanted to escape from her childhood.

She wanted to escape from the adults who thought they knew best or thought they had the purest intentions for her future and present happiness. Her childhood had destroyed her sense of self-worth and her body image. The school library was her refuge.  Now it makes her feel special to see her words and her name in large letters in fine print. It humbles her. She is talented, she gushes to Harold. She is proud of that fact because simply her gift belongs to her and to no one else in the world.

She believes there are solutions to the Group Areas Act, racism, gender bias and prejudice in Apartheid South Africa. The daily brutal injustices that it gives rise to.
She pictures a dream world in which there are solutions that have answers for the global problems and images of civil war and war being fought abroad. From the articles she reads in the newspapers she pictures boys on film inside her mind playing at war in bloody battlefields on the ground. It’s enough to give her nightmares.

She holds a layette up for inspection for her baby. Does he or doesn’t he approve? Blue with polka dots or yellow with bursts of sunflowers. Howard smells of milky sweetness, soap and baby powder. He is smiling at her. She sings to him. Today she has a crisp manner about her. One minute she is impulsive and the next she is withdrawn and close to tears or screaming at the top of her voice. At first Howard found her behaviour unpredictable, unnatural and disturbing but then he realised how much he had taken for granted from his own background. His parents, his stable home life, his relationship with his mother and that she had never known the woman who had given birth to her and had never called her mother. She tries up front to be conservative. Bessie is a dreamer with a secret life. She is an alchemist. As a poet and a writer she is a manic time traveler through time and space and empty silent rooms in the small, cramped house they are renting.

In the house where she grew up in as a little girl her childhood was dysfunctional. In her dreams she has a secret body double that is perfect. .Her demeanour is like that of a wrong-headed wren who believes in solipsism. Poetry for her is an art. It is something which is beautiful and abstract – she tries to remind herself of that everyday; that even poets and writers have a skill called consecration.

She scribbles her own secret, private thoughts in a journal. Wondering in the future when she was no longer there who would it be discovered by and would it be good enough to publish or would a firm just see it as an unsolicited manuscript and it would never see the light of day. Now she believes in eugenics; and that love and creativity will find her in spaces when she felt lonely or bereft. Remembering mourning the loss of the only mother she had ever known when she was little left her with a significant remembrance of the pain and suffering she had gone through.

The words that she writes writhe on the page in front of her. They are ultimately devoid of sacrifice but it is here in those gaps and spaces she will find the origins of laughter, surprise, being and nothingness.

In her vivid dreams her immediate environment and the beings she comes into contact with pulse with a bizarre and bedazzling life and light. There is no darkness here. There is no blackness that threatens to engulf and overwhelm her taking root and that threatens to dissolve every small sphere and realm of light. She pushed aside her differences with her husband and the difficult phase that they were going through. She thought her dreams were trying to tell her something about the status of the relationship she had with her husband. So she waited for a sign. At first she was patient. She decided she had time on her hands. She was slow to respond to the warning signals going off inside her brain. But by then it was already too late to save her failing marriage.

Howard was growing nicely. He was a sweet baby. He didn’t give her any trouble or problems really although he was teething. She was already overprotective. She wanted to keep him away from children who were rough and noisy. Those that came from difficult  and dysfunctional homes meaning homes where there was absent parents or struggling single mothers, drunk fathers who beat up their wives who used the same excuse time and time again, “I fell down the stairs.” Or “I walked into the door. I wasn’t looking where I was going.” She felt very strongly that Harold didn’t spend even quality time with them.

There were certain dreams which rendered her speechless. It was as if she had a learning disability. She couldn’t speak. She couldn’t write. She couldn’t recite. All that she loved with an unrelenting passion seemed to vanish without a trace. Dyslexia seemed to take root.

The words – her words, the voice with which she spoke – with their vague otherworldliness that she writes in have to be stored with an air of grace and defeat – they have to be locked up in a box. Locked up like lunatics or maniacs, locked up like her unstable mother was in a special clinic for people who suffered from mental illness.

Bubbles of chlorinated water in a swimming pool, waste in a stinking landfill or rubbish dump, white teeth like hot smoke,  students of trivia, ether fluid like air, all remind her of longing for something which is pure. She does not want this. To feel tied down, fettered, left feeling vulnerable and frustrated. She wants to be near success. She wants her marriage and her family and most of all her son when he grows up to be a success. She wants to improve consecutively on success. Yet she is always skating on the periphery and on the edge of what life has chosen to give her – her Moodswings. Yet there is still a unique freedom in her ethos, her creative writing and expression, her exposure as a writer, poet, journalist and all of her museum pieces.

She can feel the loneliness, the deep and painful hurt of the rejection from her childhood, the sadness that never seems to lift no matter how hard she tried to break that generational curse from her mother to her in her bones? Does she believe that miracles can come with self-help manuals?

Has her attitudes ossified amid the changes in modern-day society? She doesn’t know yet.

Inside her head spun full of ideas with English words that can ameliorate souls – she sublimates.  She conjures up dishes at will with a variety of vegetables, carrots, potatoes and onions. In her bare kitchen cooking is her ministry. Soups are her ministry.

Under water the colour of her skin changes to pink as she scrubs her hands and her feet. Her face is wet. She is crying. She wishes she were happy, content and satisfied instead of miserable in a failed marriage. It has been a long time since she has felt motivated to write and to express her innermost feelings, thoughts and her voice. There are some days when she is alone in the afternoon. Restless and bored she thinks about what inspires her and motivates her to write.

She thinks about the upheaval and chaos in the world today. In politics and organised religion, dreamy sensuality, love and cheap romance novels, the struggle against the unconventional, what is her motivation to write? Is it to be mindful or a suspect in a thriller? Here secrets that are kept are demanding. They want to be carried in whispers, across congested streets. In Port Elizabeth she wants to dip her toes into the sea. After that her head will follow, she wants to join the other bodies in the ocean and feel the spray of the water on her limbs and her face.

She wants to taste the salt at the back of her mouth after she swallows a mouthful of seawater. Here in the water she imagines her back is hunched; patterns of circles, flames of sunlight play around her head. There is a pulsing golden thread around her head. She realises as a writer that what she writes about it is something time will usually forget. That no one knew her secrets, her stories and that she was keeping it that way,

She was keeping it that way for selfish reasons. Thinking about walking away from her marriage and a father however distant he might be now at the beginning of the relationship with his son reminded her of sea water and the ruffling of soft, gentle feathers catching the sunlight. It was subject to defeat and criticism. She now looked beyond the pain and the privilege of writing stating that her feet were no longer on the ground because of the pain that did succeed in hanging her. She longed for a visceral identity. An identity she could call her own. Where she did not feel separate from reality or spend time in negative introspection.

Poetry for her is an obsession, a manifesto, a skill, a theory of flight. Her words are tidal, bittersweet and angelic. As she reclines on the sofa, draws her knees to her face, she is snug in her foetal body language and there is a way the winter light transforms, transfixes her back. It seems as if she has not slept for hours but her body feels soft, plump and warm. A stray cat they adopted as a kitten and who they nicknamed ‘Balla’ rests gently on her knees and she can swear he is doing an Alice-in-Wonderland move on her Cheshire cat style. He is smiling at her like Howard sometimes does.

What does she remember about this day? She has glimpsed sketches of picturesque beauty in Port Elizabeth, views of the silent sea, imposing mosques, a temple and places of worship for the different religious denominations, the beauty of the sunflowers that looked totally unreal and the colours of the day. What reminds her of happier times? Warm ice-cream sundaes or the dead of winter gripped in a petrified forest accompanied by the song of a fractured wind. There were always opposing forces in her writing as well as in her dreams.

The first thing she remembered about Harold was the memory of her fingertips against his as they walked hand- in- hand. She could not remember where they were going to but she knew that they were walking rather quickly as if they were late and keeping someone waiting. Someone they had to deliver some rather important and secret information to. At first she took her role of a political activist very seriously. Then slowly her ego no longer sustained that dangerous pastime and she was set adrift once more giving way to rages and cooling off periods again. So she decided she didn’t want to be a secret agent anymore. It wasn’t an easy decision for her to make but she did it. It was when she was still living in Johannesburg working as a journalist before Howard was born when an incident occurred that left a sour taste like bile in her mouth. She was arrested but not detained.

Now it is summertime, 1962 and she is living in Port Elizabeth with her husband, Harold and small child, Howard. Every man, woman and child is drawn to the beaches like brown moths to a flame. They are streaked with oil, patches of skin; their hair is watery, their faces blotched and dreamy. Their skin is peeling, sore, sun burnt, their scalp burns under the beautiful, streaming light of the sun. Their limbs are tanned and the air tastes like salt. They languish in the summer sun, their skin bronzed smoothly under the heat of the sun. Being conservative does not touch this season but it wills attention to you.

The summer sun is quietly beautiful, inspiring and seductive. She is not going out today. She is standing still. Today she wished the summer sun would go away because it reminded her of her home. She was far away in her own private thoughts, dreaming of her childhood days.

She found all this closeness suffocating and intolerable. There was an eerie disharmony in the heat. Everybody came out in summer, yet she remained inhibited, imprisoned not only by her inhibitions but also by the race regulations ‘Whites only’. She was intrigued by them, also deathly afraid that they would come too close to her, scrutinise her.

She longed for his embrace and to give herself over to him. She could feel his fingertips as she surrendered to his love. The barest trace remains of his lips on her skin. His touch made her spiral upwards into a sweet euphoria. In the stillness, the quietness, the coolness of the room she filled with a surge powered by a hopeful optimism.

What would she do with him in the morning? He would expect her to cook and clean for him. “Hah!” Bessie thought to herself. “Not this feminist.” She snorted at her private opinion.

“Take me away from here. I can’t live without you.” The words were on the edge of her lips but she was afraid that he would still be here in the morning. He would want to own her. “You don’t own me. Don’t forget that.” Soon he would slip away into the shadows before the sun came up, falling asleep. It suited her. Female writers were never prosaic about love, even in their prose. They considered tools of seduction as glorified contemporary masters of disguise. She lit a cigarette and took a long drag. She blew the pale smoke out into a hazy cloud, bit her nail and willed herself not to cry for unfulfilled desires, more children, for happiness, the final test. Destiny was out of her control.

She didn’t want to be alone but she was incapable of connecting parasite behaviour with the aesthetic of a professional and narcissistic modern society perfectly. She was demure, she championed worthy causes, orphans, the Salvation Army, abandoned pets, the sick, the elderly, the frail, the infirm and the poverty-stricken.

As the girls walked next to her she felt out of place, yet she was hardly older than they were. Their voices were disembodied along side her in the street. She caught glimpses of the superficial closeness, the inhumanity of teenagers, bodies trembling from snatches of a quick, intimate embrace, a kiss, a muffled ‘I love you’.

She longed to soak up the cool water lapping at the edge of the shore, roasting her shoulders, her upper body until it was tender, the bridge of her nose and her fingers feeling toasty warm. She felt daunted, feeble, overwhelmed all at once. At home, she began to prepare a meal of meat and potatoes. Her son watched her with bright, curious eyes. She began to eat in small, appreciative bites and then with gusto she dished another serving. She continued silently, unabated for a few minutes. When she was finished with that, she began on a leftover soup from the previous evening’s supper. Her husband would return later that afternoon after looking for work. She hoped he would be successful and that perhaps they could make a life here and settle down, put down some roots.

She would do her hair today. She was filled with panic and disorder. Where should she begin first? It would make a lovely change. Her doing something for herself instead of chores and the daily routine of going to the shops. Perhaps later she would bake something. Harold could help.

All her life she had been afraid of life, of love, settling down, making a home and being a wife. When she first met her future husband she thought she was staring it in the face – her inescapable future. How could she deny what she felt, that stirring deep inside of her that recognised everything that she had locked so far away inside herself? She had locked her youth, her innocence, her jaded insecurities, her childhood and her mother so far away that it no longer distressed at night, when the weather turned. The familiar was like paper – disposable yet at the same time fresh in her memory, easily picked at.

“Talk to me, Bess. We used to do that all the time. You used to tell me about your day. You couldn’t wait for me to open the door and welcome me home. Do you talk to anyone? Have you made any friends?”

Where were her cigarettes? She couldn’t find them anywhere this morning, her one vice. One would relax her immediately.

“You think you’re better than me. You have a job. I have knitting and patterns. You don’t have to stare at four walls day in day out.”

“Do you want to know what the solution to your problem would be? If you would only care about what I think or what I have to say. If you would just give a damn. Sometimes, just sometimes I could just hit you.”

Howard sucked his thumb and began to rock back and forth in a corner of the room.
“Everyday I come home your eyes are the dead giveaway. Why are you so unhappy?”
Bess would sigh and turn her head.

“I give up.” He walked out of the room to the kitchen.

“Adults are not meant to be happy. There are bills to pay, mouths to feed, there’s only time to be a mule.”

“I’m going out. I won’t be long. Will the two of you be alright?”

She nodded; glad that he couldn’t see her face in the dark. “He’s asleep.”
As he stepped out of the house everything that she wished with all her heart that she could say to him came to mind. “Stay. Don’t go out. I’ll make us some tea.” But he had already closed the gate behind him. She found her cigarettes in the kitchen and began to smoke. Pale smoke drifted from her lips. Sometimes she dreamt about her mother. She would be frail now or dead. She dreamt about her beautiful golden hair, her mouth and her lips that teased her father. No, she didn’t think about him.

She was sure that wherever he was he would never have imagined his daughter would become a writer. Her mother’s memory was like an inviting explosion of colour, of roses blooming and of flowers arranged perfectly in a vase, wrapped like a beautiful gift. She didn’t have any pictures of either of her parents but sometimes when was waiting in line she imagined her mother was standing ahead of her in the queue and the little girl standing next to her was her and she was living in a dream. Bessie wished that she were holding onto that woman’s hand so hard that she didn’t even notice that the line had moved forward that morning in the Post Office. She started to pick wildflowers in the garden and put it in a jam jar on the table. Everyday like clockwork when he came home, he began to sing as soon as he stepped through the door, “Bessie has a secret admirer. Tell me, oh tell me, who it is please.”

She remained still, lifeless staring at her flowers one afternoon. The blooms seemed wild, fragile and free like the colour of her imagination. Sadness seemed to be seeping into the rooms of the house like damp during winter. One evening at supper she looked across the table at her husband and smiled. Something had changed within her in the ensuing weeks. He looked up and smiled back at her. “I was thinking. We should move. You’re having no luck with finding long term work here.” He paused as if he were going to say something and then stopped himself. “You’re right.” Later that night he did not go out for his usual walk but he stayed in and helped her with the dishes. They listened to the radio in amicable silence.

On Sunday they took their son to the beach and the tiredness and anxiety she had felt had disappeared. It felt as if a weight had been lifted off her shoulders. She couldn’t remember a time when she had felt happier, calmer and more relaxed. As she lay awake that night while he lay sleeping next to her. She was startled to hear something moving outside her door. She felt afraid. Her son appeared in the moonlight, “Mummy.” She immediately got out of bed and went to him, took him in her arms and shushed him. His cheek felt cool. She smoothed his curls with her hand and kissed the top of his head. “Can’t you sleep?” she asked him. He shook his head. She lay him in the middle of the bed between her and her husband. Howard fell asleep quickly. One day the child would be gone and there would be a man who would perhaps feel he was trapped by the world. For although he would cut corners like dynamite one day, for now he would not speak in whispers, say what he didn’t mean. She could keep him safe from a dream world.

The potatoes were boiling in a thin meaty broth with vegetables when her husband walked through the front door. Bessie glanced at his face and knew he had a rough day. He sat down at the table and cleared his throat. “None of the newspapers here in Port Elizabeth seem to be hiring any reporters or are on the look out for new talent.” He sighed and leaned over and kissed the top of his son’s head and placed him on his lap.

“Maybe tomorrow you’ll have better luck. Maybe you’ll find something.”

“If I don’t, we’ll have to consider moving back to Cape Town. There are more opportunities there for you as a writer. There are publishers there.”

“I was beginning to like it here. Howard was beginning to like it here too.” Howard looked at his mother and nodded his head seriously. His father smiled.

“So, we’ve been having terrible luck, rotten luck, you know, we’ve been through worse.”

Bessie didn’t say anything. She turned her head away. She dished out their supper, her husband tried to catch her eye to make her smile but she ignored him. Things were not perfect, she thought to herself but maybe he wasn’t trying hard enough and their savings were about to run out soon. She began to feed Howard who ate obediently.

“The reporter often stands alone – unsuccessful at his first attempts for greatness. At first he is unique, doubtful and restless. He is stubborn and miserable when he fails. For him every single word has an unspeakable relevance.” But Bessie didn’t listen to a word he said. She was too busy trying to spoon mashed potato and pumpkin into Howard’s mouth.

Howard was not perturbed by his parents’ silence at the table.

Speak to me in moments like these, she said to herself. Moments that are harmless but giving way to a conservative harmony, nightly in my room in quiet reflection, a reverent silence stirring in the evening, a stillness harvesting survival and a purity of thought. There is a lifetime of taking lives in the heat of the night and the heart-shaped bullet takes flight. It takes cognisance of what tragically came before; I am forgetful of our differences in the fire that sustains that life unrivalled, the mock fascination of the phases of life…Mindful of chaos and closure, the spheres that govern those spaces, the faint expression of territorial hunger and poverty around my mouth. It is almost like the glimpse of the watery underbelly of the surface of a lake. A trembling, pale-faced crescent overhead – Bessie seemed otherworldly, lacking substance, a vital staying power. Bessie shifted with the passage of time, with the dial of a clock.

I lay awake wishing you were here, but you’re not. The symbiosis of this relationship is incomplete. He stirred in his sleep, put his arm around her waist and breathed deeply in his sleep. She imagined that he was finally in all these weeks speaking to her, that recognition was there now – he was dead to her but not to another woman.

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