Books always marked our games somehow. The passage of time. Growing up the house was (always) filled with books.
A flower blossoms in her hair (my sister, Joyce). Red flowers bloom in my haunted, aching heart. Hold my hand, will you please just hold me.
Love me, love me, love me but Joyce danced away from me. Out of my reach. I’m afraid of what I am going to find at the end of the world. Will it be infirmity after the closure of desire of youth? Euphoria winking at me like an oyster. I have a vision of the elderly version of me eating soft, warm apple, crumble breaking up into enchanting sweetness in my mouth. In this version of me I don’t belong to the world at large anymore. What was once ‘my oyster’ is perhaps no longer? The sea meets the world in her (Joyce’s) eyes. The same brown eyes that we’ve inherited from our parents. The same colour as mine. We’ve shared everything and nothing at the same time with each other since childhood. I long for the nearness of her but she lives in another city. Could be another country for all that it mattered? She is as determined to me as Jonah’s whale.
There’s perfume behind her smile. Its smell is intoxicating. Joyce does not know this that she is my angelic conjured up myth. She has always been crucial to my development. Suffering ends and begins with her each day. She is mine. Star my eye to the telescope. She’s the ghost of a childhood view.
Joyce is a chapter that has come to an end. In her world (Alice was a stranger) I, Alice was always the stranger.
One day perhaps I’ll set up a house with a man and together we’ll raise a tribe of sons and daughters and then finally I’ll be called the two most sacred words in the English language. ‘Mother’ and ‘wife’.
And then, perhaps then the onion layers of sadness will leave me.
I’ll make the children wear hand me downs. Frog march them to church on Sunday mornings. Prepare a roast with all the trimmings (vegetables, potatoes swimming in a gravy boat) for lunch. I’ll introduce the children to reading Rilke, Goethe, and Hemingway. The girls to the poetry of Fleur Adcock, Marilyn Monroe, Sylvia Plath.
I’ll French braid my daughters’ hair. Read them bedtime stories. Sing them lullabies. I will make them eat their broccoli. Make them eat healthily. These children will inherit my dark brown hair falling into their eyes, framing their face. They will have my brown eyes in their genes.
I will tell the children not to try and hungrily lick the patterns of flowers off their plates.
The boys will have their father’s build. They’ll be lean with sturdy limbs. They (the children) will grow into salt of the earth young women and men. To the girl I was before. I am there with you always in my letters home. Every morning Gertrude, my father’s other half, my mother, would raise up the sun.
Her body is in the wild wilderness of her garden. Her thinking celestial. ‘My boys’ will digest the Hardy Boys. I’ll teach them young. I’ll teach them how to love the independent woman of today. The girls will feast on Nancy Drew. After that they’ll graduate to Virginia Woolf. Yes, of course I’ll introduce them all to poetry.
Whenever I think of Gertrude, my mother, I think of a garden. Every woman has a garden. Real or imagined.
It is a new winter collaborating with trains, buses, cars, foot traffic, and transport. I know about thirst. Loss is nothing new. Here’s a drawing of a map. Autumn leaves cast off in this mud season but that is not where my story begins. With Alice the writer.
After the university relationship had come to an end Alice (that’s me) longed wistfully for the familiar as if she had misplaced it somewhere. The mind can move mountains. The mind can move mountains, she told herself repeatedly as if that would make any difference. You need a change of world, she told her reflection in the bathroom mirror in the evenings. It was winter. The evenings were longer.
In winter the evenings were always longer. She lit candles in the bathroom. Poured bath oil into the water.
Soaked in the tub. Thought about ex-boyfriends from her university days. Thought about what they were doing.
The girls they had married. The women the girls they had married had become. How for every woman in the world (and girl) there was a different recipe for potato salad.
Steradent. Old Spice. Joe’s things (Alice’s father) on the bathroom windowsill as familiar as the chapters of her runaway mother.
‘Your normal little self is in your marrow. It’s there in your bones if you look for it long and hard enough.’ I wrote this down. Alice wrote this down for future reference.
Inside the cool interiors of the library you will find both the metaphysical and the social there. It will speak to you in volumes. In passages. It will call on the familiar. It will call you Alice, the philosopher.
So I became three people, a daughter to Joe, a sister to Joyce, an Alice in diaries, journals, interviews, (an Alice) in sessions with my psychiatrist. It’s all here written down for posterity.
I sometimes forget how the romance of life is much like the recipe for a breeze (that tastes warm or cuts you with its icy molecules). The ingredients are all there for the taking. Anticipation, salt, loyalty, dancing, singing, lungs filled with joy, connections, and humanity. The ingredient list of a spoilt baby. How anticipation moves in the world now. Salt of the earth abundant. Loyal to a fault. How it can make you dance. How it can make your heart sing. Fill your lungs with joy. Make you feel connected to the earth as well as other people. Your humanity.
(Alice in the third person)
Alice had done her O’ levels at a high school in rural Swaziland. Just the break she needed from a father who suffered from abandonment issues of his own. A father who had neglected his wife who had left him with two small daughters to raise. Alice looked at the cold milk that she had just poured into a glass on the kitchen table. She had made breakfast for herself again and was quite unhappy with the outcome. Cinnamon and honeyed French toast. The congealed yellow of fried eggs cold and greasy staring back at her on the white plate alongside burnt toast. She thought back to the telephone conversation she had with her sister earlier that day in the afternoon. The frailties of their father Joe’s body and mind were leading her to think about her own mortality.
There is always change. Sometimes we might not expect it. We’re always expecting the predictable.
We’re always expecting the world of change. It’s beautiful. It’s wonderful. Its scenery is marvellous.
(Alice and Joyce)
Alice dialled Joyce’s telephone number, willing her telepathically to pick up the telephone on the other side of the world (Johannesburg according to Alice was the other side of the world).
She felt lonely. She longed for a companion that she could talk to. She hoped that Joyce felt lonely too.
“Hello. Is Joyce there?” Alice asked.
“This is Joyce, Alice. This is my number. Who do you think is going to answer the telephone?” Alice ignored her sister and feigned happiness.
“You don’t sound happy.” Alice said between gritted teeth. Twisting the telephone cord between her fingers.
“I don’t sound happy because I’m tired. I’ve worked the whole day. I mean, I work long hours.”
“Of course I know that, Joyce. I know you’re tired at the end of a long day. Do you want me to phone some other time? At the weekend perhaps?”
“No. Its fine, Alice. We can talk now. I just have to take the dogs for a walk.”
“Your children. The babies of the family are always spoilt.” Now it was Joyce’s turn to ignore her sister.
“How are you?” It sounded more like a plea for attention than a question.
“I’m fine.” Joyce remarked tersely.
“How was boot camp?” Alice focused on the lace curtains hanging in the kitchen.
“The same. Off one week and then back to the grindstone after work even though it’s freezing cold and raining even in the evening here in Johannesburg.”
“What are you doing?”
“Making sonnets. The usual. Going through recipes of baby food for Joe. Are you still going out with Vusi?”
“I’m not going out with him. We just had coffee and lunch Alice.”
“What! You had brunch? You never told me that.”
“It wasn’t ‘brunch’. It was ‘lunch’.” Joyce said the word ‘brunch’ slowly and the word ‘lunch’ with an attitude. “No, I didn’t. Must have slipped my mind. I don’t tell you everything. I mean, you don’t have to know everything, do you? We didn’t have brunch. We had lunch.” Joyce repeated herself.
“Oh, you mean you had sandwiches at the canteen at work.”
“No. I mean we had a proper lunch sitting down in a restaurant looking at menus, a wine list and stuff.”
“Two dates and you just knew.” Alice asked her sister, feeling the tension in the air and biting her lower lip.
“Just knew what?” Joyce asked slightly irritated now with the way the conversation was going.
“Just knew that you wouldn’t see him again. I didn’t mean anything by saying ‘brunch’. I didn’t mean to imply anything.” I just want you to be happy. Alice wanted to add in an exasperated voice.
“Well, it’s difficult meeting new people in this city. Perhaps you’d understand that if you came to visit.” After that sentence she could hear her sister talking to her dogs, telling them they were going for a walk now-now. Alice just felt in the way. She rubbed her temple with her free hand.
“After a long pause, Alice wished she had never had the nerve to have called Joyce. She thought she’d put in a last ditch effort.
“What are you eating?” Alice knew her sister was only being polite by asking her that question. Alice knew she was dreading the answer. They never spoke for long on the telephone anyway.
“Oh, I just opened a can of peaches. I’m eating peaches from a can.” Alice could hear her sister was in her kitchen at the sink opening and closing a tap. She could hear running water.
“Are you reading anything new? What are you making for supper?” Alice tried again to make conversation.
“What I always make? Sometimes leftovers. Now that it’s winter usually leftover soup or a lamb chop with sweet potato.” The conversation would always end with, “When are you coming to visit Alice?”
But Joyce knew that Alice wouldn’t come. Couldn’t come. There was her fear of flying. Her anxiety.
And then there was Joe. Joe, do you remember him, Joyce? Joe, your father. That was Alice speaking.
She could hear Joyce’s voice in the loophole of the telephone. Oh, you mean the mean alcoholic who abandoned us.
But the sisters never had that conversation, Alice often thought to herself.
Alice wished she had it in her to deliver sentences dripping with sarcasm but she didn’t. She wished she had it in her to say, “Joyce, you’re like a letter from the edge of a volcano.” Alice stood in her bare feet in the foyer after putting down the phone. “Joyce if only you were more spiritual. You should meditate more often. Find some arrangement of time and place in your busy schedule, and in your personal space take a time out and think before you say anything to me in the future. I mean I love you but sometimes what you say is so hectic. What you say hurts me. I mean we both grew up in the same house. We both lost the same mother. She walked out on both of us. You’re water, Joyce, Alice said in her head. You’re just a waterfall. Tears in heaven. You’re a vessel. A beautiful, spirited empty vessel.
(These are the diary entries of Alice marked flamboyantly with notes). “Please spare me the despair of it all.” Alice could almost hear Joyce thinking. The present is also the future. My torment is past. Denial, faith, addiction, tragedy, disease have the same red brick walls. You’re the origin of what you’re thinking and feeling, those peaks and troughs of Joe’s chronic illness (it was only Joyce that refused to accept alcoholism as addiction, alcoholism as an illness or disease, it was Alice who read up on it, who attended meetings, who gave her father his medication). In the evenings in the flat in P.E., Joe had started to pray. Alice would say the ‘Our Father’ while quietly mouthing an ‘in Jesus mighty name’ or a ‘son of David’ or just a ‘hallelujah’).
(Alice by herself)
There’s the life of a poet inside of me after all, (Alice in wonderland, that’s me) I thought to myself.