He was just a man. He was just a man dreaming of being found. Lost. Lost. Lost. And inside of me there’s a feeling, this feeling of being stuck in traffic in a thunderstorm. A feeling of thirst, a painful thirst and wandering, believing that my brother captures everyone around him with the electricity and lightning daze of influence. There’s a bold intriguing force of electricity and lightning within him. Lightning and electricity. And with that thought, that knowledge, comes needles of them, of thoughts. A pin-prick that feels life threatening. A flash. A burst of thought. And then the rain would come like a dream, like sleep. First drops and then it begins to pour. The rain would mean water, fresh, sweet, pure water, entitlement, privilege, being born with a silver spoon in your mouth, waiting, always waiting for that opportunistic moment, that mind hurdle that tells me I’ve been awake all my life but for the poor ones it would mean flooding. Their homes would be flooded. They would have to walk with skirts hiked up to get to where they had to go, barefoot, humiliated, scooping the water out of their homes with plastic buckets, helpless, homeless, sleeping on damp mattresses. How do people live like that, I’ve always wondered? Where do you go from extreme poverty? Who will give you a hand-out? For the poor it would just mean another uncomfortable experience that they would have to deal with.
I press my knee against the foot of the table. Jew. Jew. Jew. Jew hair. Jew nose. Her hair looked like a Maltese poodle’s hair. How did she get the brush and comb through that mess every night? How quick she was to dismiss me, hide her smile. I’ve forgotten my words. Forgot the poem I years have been from home. Forgot the last two verses of the poem by Emily Dickinson. I watch her mouth, Jewess, her soft lips making the drawing of a pout. Her lips were mouthing words. Words I could not make out. But I could make out the smile and the quiet laughter that gave me a sour taste in my mouth (already I had been used to this taste in my mouth for a very long time now, and I would never get over the anxious butterflies in my stomach, my thoughts racing but I would never get used to laughing and smiling with them at my expense, even though my mother said I should almost as if she knew something I didn’t for the longest time) and for a long time I was very serious about feeling ashamed about the way I looked. It took me forever to work it out of my system. Her lips look like the shade of an expensive perfumery sticky pink lipstick. She smells like Revlon. She smells expensive. Her nails are shiny, manicured. I do not accept her principles, the standards that she judges me by. The colour of my skin, my faith. The sound of my posh voice bouncing off the walls. Her face gives her away. I wish she’d like me. I wish we could be friends anyway. Her mother did my hair and make-up at the theatre for Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. When my mother dropped me off outside the theatre she told me crossly to smile and speak to the other children. ‘Be nice. Don’t be shy.’ She told us to enjoy ourselves at the rehearsal. All the other children were White. My brother, sister and I were the only children of colour. Colour. Coloured. Mixed race. My golden-haired sister had a pink rose in every cheek. My brother was olive-skinned. He looked like his father. Dark and handsome. Bones. I didn’t understand why they were like they were. Every one of those highty-tighty Whites. I didn’t like the Jews because they didn’t like us. I didn’t understand how some of them could have straight hair and some had curly hair. They were like us but in other ways they weren’t like us. I watched her but then in a way I felt sorry for her when I imagined her in her storybook life. It didn’t seem all that wonderful to me. Liar. She didn’t let her mother put make-up on her. Instead she told her mother she could do it herself. And her mother said fine, go ahead, just like that. We all left seeing farms, cows and horses in fields on long drives to Grahamstown in the distant past. Rehearsals, scripts, being dropped outside the theatre, the five minute call before opening night when the three of us left school. And my sister became a paler version of my mother. My brother grew taller, grew darker of complexion. My nickname could have been less-than-zero.
I must have fun like other girls my age. Why am I so serious, so sullen all of the time? And then I remember my mother’s mantra. Smile. My sister is happy even if I feel excluded from her happiness. I don’t feel I must be included in her plans anymore. I must have sunshine, try and sunbathe. Get a tan. Get as brown as a berry. Get some of that sun into my skin to seep into all of my sadness. Even sadness has grace, a personal space where you are free to express a torn idea that can rip you apart, terrify you as if you are in that moment of writing about a disaster or war or violence, (physical violence shattering all truth or sexual violence). She is always trying to get me to try harder. In her life money makes the world go round. It fires her up. She is wired to it all the while I am failing magnificently. I do not please her. She is not accepting of people who do not meet her standards, her criteria. And so I crazily, wildly fail again. I should be living it up, acting out, and not feel so vulnerable in relationships.
Is my brother like all men, a man just wanting, waiting to be found? He is up to the primitive challenges and mating rituals of the slick futuristic society we live in today. Drinking with his mates, drinking them under the table. No self-defeatism in his voice. He is immune to it. In some regards we are alike. We are both quick to condemn the faint-hearted, those cowards who do not meet the requirements of living up to the best intentions that their parents had for them.
If I write what I like, am I asking for trouble? Should I tread with caution where angels fear to tread? There is no turning back. Your moon face rises out of air to meet me like people of the stars. Mummy, the creator of man, a boy, a baby boy, this woman intrigued me like a celebrity hanger-on. Those people who so desperately wanted to live in the public eye. They lived a life separate from their private one caught for a second in a frame, caught in a snapshot. It couldn’t really be called history until there was enough time for it to be called history. Until it was looked at in retrospect. I hear her laughing in the kitchen talking to my brother and his girlfriend who is cooking furiously in the background. Always cooking furiously in the background. Stirring things up in the pots and pans that I could never dream of. Always baking a dream of cake. My brother is her chosen one. I am a disappointment. I have failed her. I am the one who has to live with that. I am too old-fashioned, too clever, and more magnificent than her when it comes to my father. For her I think revenge must be sweet. Give enough rope to the handmaiden and she will hang herself. Look for example at Joan of Arc and Antigone. Look for example at Adam.
What is the nature of the beast that is found in man, in all of us (most of all human nature), the true nature of the heathen, the suffering of slaves, and the writer who is demanding of their readers? The world is not as it should be. One day poverty might not exist and that is the true nature of the beast. To divide and rule. Liberty, freedom, equality, fraternity, democracy. Do they exist in a futuristic apocalyptic world made out of our sensory perception? What is the basis of all politics? Possessions. Think. One day all technology will surpass all humanity and then what will become of the humanitarians and the philanthropists. Think of what our richest possession is. For me that is humanity. The soul. Soul consciousness. Being aware of the self, human behaviour, social interaction, social cohesion in rural and urban districts. What is the true nature of the seasons? There is a time and place for the conscious.
Meanwhile our unconscious spirits us away. Are we truly ‘agents of conquest’ every one of us? From those who are con artists by day and night trying to put on the table for their growing family (and in every household like that there’s a woman making a hot plate for a man who will arrive late after the kids have been put to bed and who had spent his day’s wages at the club on the horses or drinking cheap wine). Are the sushi kings of this world flushed with sticky rice, California rolls and raw fish? And when we come to the greedy megalomaniacs stuffing themselves with shellfish and garlic butter, to monomaniacs drowning in (or driven crazy by it) paper money, to the regular blue collar maniacs who had from their honest day’s work dirt under their fingernails, when we come to the history of human rights, monopoly, don’t they all, doesn’t it have the energy of being an agent or ‘agents of conquest’ too? How quick the righteous become self-righteous?
Are we all not supposed to be instruments of change? Look for example at Joan of Arc and Antigone. Look for example at Adam. They were never found California dreaming as much as modern-day Africans (white and black, coloured faces, the mixed races of different ancestry). The ones who most want to cross the history wilderness to make it to modern-day Los Angeles, making their mark, making a notch in their belt, traversing the plains in the counties of the Midwest of America. Words like Stevie Wonder, ebony, ivory, Times Square, Chicago and Wyoming, lake, tobogganing, Time, Newsweek, social media, the network, broadcast news, the land of the free and the home of the brave would sing arias inside of me alongside an orchestra.
Diary, journal, you think you’re the only one who has felt pain in this world. Pain that runs deep, as deep as a river. Bravery can sometimes be a mission. There’s such a cool detachment about man when he is brave. When he has a steady tolerance about him. When he enters a world filled with a minefield of ghost disciples. When his smile carries with it a warmth and dignity. When his person has a cleanliness about him. Boys – even those with a fearlessness about them – cry (even those who have an easiness about them, those careful emperors can be sensitive and understanding, compelled to understand the vulnerable in a younger, less experienced female). The lonely can see lonely coming from a mile away usually (usually predictable) and they’re not likeminded nor a match made in heaven. They’re haphazardly swinging from the chandeliers, hanging on for dear life to their sanity, sharpening their set of skills. Man, man in recovery sees therapy as sweet ritual. For centuries the man waiting to be found has journeyed in words. Wise people wiser than their years who did not have an easiness about them. Every man, even the homosexual is wise on his own terms. If you ask him what courage means (to him) won’t he answer you? The words will roll off his tongue. For every man leads a double life. For every man is beautiful and wise in his own way. For every man walks to the beat of his own drum. It is loyalty from a band of brothers that gives them (and not necessarily a loyal woman that has a high regard for them) a flaming spirit.
Whenever I think of girls I think of Swaziland, that green feast. I think of youth. I think of the young and how fresh and new their ideas must be to them and the world, a very adult world that must have been so far away from them. I remember the faces of the girls and the boys. They all had the skin of dark chocolate. As smooth as velvet. Creamy. Beautiful. The coloured girls were also pretty. I remember how all the girls would straighten their hair (it is a painful chemical process, sometimes your scalp would burn) how the curls would frame their faces, how much time and effort they all took with their appearance for appearance’s sake. They had names like Lulu and Katanekwa. They were from other places too from as far afield as Zimbabwe and Zambia. Places whose names sounded so exotic. I wanted the O levels. I wanted to go to England. To study film was something that became all-important to me once upon a time. The escape was also part of the plan. To escape from dysfunction, to escape from family, from a difficult mother who was killing me, casting me out adrift into a grown up world I was not ready for. She loved to see me bump up against things that frightened me into a silent world where I would hold my tongue for once and not speak. Some of them wanted to go to South Africa. They wanted to matriculate there. Some were borders. I remember how the girls would hike their skirts above their knees so if they bent over everybody could see the colour of their undergarments.
Whenever I think of dirt, poverty, common sense, con artists, thieves and how much effort the church puts into saving souls for Jesus, I think of the Salvation Army.
Whenever I think about the dirt-poor and poverty, I think about the streets of Johannesburg filled with crime. And I think about Bruce Springsteen’s streets of Philadelphia. Whenever I think about violence (violence as a volcano building up inside of man), I think of the women and children I met at a shelter for abused women and children. The women and children I ate with, slept with, bathed with, and worked side by side with in the stinking compost heap filled with creepy crawlies under sometimes a hot day, a pale sky feeling the sweat and not feeling the sweat, and not feeling uplifted in any way by it, by doing what I was doing. I was unpacking and packing crates alongside women and children who have lost all emotional and financial security from the man in their lives and the lives of their children. I was giving away stale cake and breads, rotting vegetables going off to black families queuing up hungry, torn. I worshipped with them. With all of those black faces. And they became like family to me. The mothers of those children, absent fathers for every one of their children that they brought with them from their shadowy past forever in their lives became like a mother to me more than my own had ever shown me. They showed me love, a return to love. Taught it to me parrot fashion as if I had to get it inside my spirit come hell or high water. Love was an invitation to a movement. It was a sonnet, a verse. They taught me to fight ideas with ideas.
The rats really do represent the working classes. No freedom, liberty, fraternity for them. No democracy. Scavengers everyone. They’re left miserable, wet or dry or on the shelf hungry for a better life.
And when I think of the times I spent with the homeless, with the educated and uneducated, with the inferior-minded (not of their own making, not of their own fault) and those who had a superiority complex about themselves, when I think about Johannesburg, I think about the failings of my mother and how the city itself rescued me when I was writing, studying, running up streets and down streets. I thought about the failings of my father. How safe he was in the life he thought he had built for his children. He thought we had it made or that we made it but how wrong he was. I think often now of the road before us, how long it was and how often we wandered off the path through the periods of our lives when we took ‘mini-breaks’ from life. University, college, recovery and rehab, hospitalisation after hospitalisation, counselling session after counselling session, homelessness, helplessness, loneliness, isolation, rejection.
The extraordinary child, the gifted child (once their gift has been noted by their teachers, and their offspring and once their parents are careful of praising them), the chosen one never looks a gift horse in the mouth if they can help it from there on out. All they see is an age of dreams if they are protected; kept safe from the world at large with all its distortions. At first I could not see the power of the emotional abuse of a pervert in Nabokov’s Lolita and then slowly it began to dawn on me, have we not created a life for them? Have we not created a world for them in which to suffocate the human dignity of the vulnerable with their injustices? And when the abused child grows up don’t they become the abuser of a child’s trust or the most vulnerable human being they can lay their hands on? The abuser, well, they inflict, and their intention is to harm, to control, to frighten the living daylights out of their captive or captives. And when they succeed at all costs it gives them a slight reprieve from the memories that make them stand on tenterhook in nightmares and flashbacks of their own abusive childhood. There is no one in the abuser’s life that will say to them, ‘Save yourself first before you try and start saving other people.’ Isn’t that sad. Isn’t that at the heart of the matter, that in this pure and fantastical land it is hard to change, transform families from not thinking that the weight of this huge sin matters? When our children hurt, when the vulnerable hurt we are all responsible. How simple and easy it is to let down the entire human race by going about our day being selfish stupidly and steadfastly. Why not be the adult. Be the saint. Be the Saviour. Be someone’s Saviour. Step up as high as the planets. There’s a joy that you get from the particles of the familiar and a peace of mind. It’s the same joy that you get from being kind.
I have been shamed and ashamed. But haven’t we all been shamed and ashamed? Trauma. Lived it. I’ve survived it. Everybody has stories like that that they’ve carried with them since childhood. I believe that wish-fulfilment (self-fulfilling prophecies), believing in yourself and what you are capable of doing can solve anything. And I’ve come to realise that no problem is too big for my shoes or humanity to fill once you get your head around your own limitations. Everybody has limitations, flaws and weaknesses they cannot cast asunder no matter how merry, easy-go-lucky and terrific they may seem on the surface.
And so throughout the centuries the man dreaming of being found was never robbed of his insight, his will, and his intelligence again through this realisation, that the world was his oyster, that the conch shell he held up to his ear really did in fact hold the mystifying ocean-sea’s mist of a burden-of-a-breath; that every woman in the world really was beautiful.
© Abigail George
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