I am standing inside a museum with the thick vibrations of an ocean inside my dated mind filled with the clutter of frames of history, wars sunk into the comaed light of this afternoon.
It, this ocean’, flows (it resonates within my soul, dies in my spirit). It starts and ends with feet, fingers, hands.
Holding onto things and then letting them go and find their own way in the universe. Right, to surrender but isn’t that more feminine. Belonging to a woman’s intuition, Catherine said.
I bumped into Catherine at a pharmacy more than twenty years ago. She was buying scented soap. I had the flu. I had a nasty cough that I just couldn’t shake. She looked at me and smiled.
I didn’t know what else to do but smile back at her. She paid for her soap. I bought a bottle of cough syrup. Thought she had vanished for good before I would have a chance to ask her out.
Reached the door and found her again. She looked at me again (was she determined to get her man?). I asked her if she wanted to go and get a cup of coffee.
I don’t even know you, she said, but her eyes were laughing at me. I wanted to say let’s take this chance. See where it goes. We had coffee and spoke at length for three hours straight.
Catherine’s death was devastating. Colleagues from her work came to the house after the funeral and said that they didn’t really know her but she had been a hard worker. Distant.
I remember when Catherine and I first dated, how she would run away from me, barefoot on the beach, hair loose and tangled. Catherine in life, before death.
She would wait for me. Wait for me to catch up to her and then we would embrace and watch other couples. Children. We would walk arm-in-arm back to the car. This is it, she would say.
It’s perfect and it’s never going to get any better than this. I just smiled because I enjoyed her company. She made me happy. Just this morning she had been crying to me on the telephone.
Now she was smiling. Happy. I had done that for her. Transformed her. I am full of the sea, now and my father can go to hell. Did you know what he said to me?
It’s is just not worth repeating to someone who I love. One night she turned to me in the dark and asked me if she was her mother’s daughter. I rubbed her shoulders. Kissed her neck.
Go back to sleep, I whispered. You are just having a bad dream. I had never met her mother.
I met her father once. We had gone to eat lunch in a restaurant. I had to ask for his blessing.
We finished eating our expensive meal. I wanted to impress. Our glasses of wine. I sipped mine. Her father had a few glasses. Catherine is a difficult person. She was a difficult child.
Always wanted all of our attention. So competitive in high school. You want to marry her. Then you want my blessing. All this. This extravagant lunch was not necessary. So fancy.
You could have just picked up the telephone and telephoned me. No need for all of this. This sham.
I asked him didn’t he want to meet the man who wanted to marry his only child, his only daughter?
All he said to this was that I didn’t know the real Catherine yet. She could become moody, give you the silent treatment when she didn’t get her way.
So I am in the museum again. Taking long walks. I don’t drink red wine anymore. That was Catherine’s ritual, not mine. I’ve become a Christian. The children have all left. They phone.
I feel they could do more. They could visit. Tickets are expensive. Then there is always talk of the political situation in South Africa. Concerns for their safety. Gertrud’s children’s safety.
In the museum this ocean flows (this gesture like a stream that is navigated by the captain of a paper ship, the marching order of salt and light rubbed into the wound of small things).
Things that are familiar. Catherine with dirt under her fingernails after working in the garden. Wearing her ‘country boots’. Smelling like an earth-mermaid. In the museum it flows.
It flows towards the family holidays spent by the sea with small children, a hand clutching driftwood, the angelic shine of the day, and it takes me to the fragments of the love of my life.
Me clenching and unclenching my fists. Remembering Catherine. The great, beautiful Catherine with the haunting eyes, mischief in her laughter (and eyes).
Catherine crying when I found her cutting herself. An empty wine bottle, a broken glass next to her side of the bed. I would always find her lying in the foetal position on the floor.
I can explain, she would say. Please don’t leave me. Stay with me. I promise I won’t do it again. It’s just that it makes me forget. Forget about my parents. Their attitudes.
I just snapped, she said. Once my mother slapped me. We were having breakfast. I was four. Jesus, I was four. My mother was a monster. She would sometimes just forget about me.
I would have to walk home after school. She is dead now. She will never be able to answer for herself now. She will never know our children. My babies.
Our babies, she would say with a smile. Thank God, for that. Jesus Christ! I still love her though. She was my mother. Mine to love and to take care of in the end. To be her caregiver.
Afterward, after the bloody scene, picking her up off the floor, drying her tears, after she took a shower, we would open up another bottle of wine and I would make spaghetti.
We would drink it out of paper cups. This would always make her laugh. Bring on the pasta, Joseph. Fatten me up before we make love. I’m too thin. Will you hold me, just hold me now.
I would hold her. Run my hands up and down her back in the kitchen. Kiss her wet cheek. Dry her tears with my big hands tenderly. Catherine the investment banker masterful.
In my arms she was Catherine the innocent. A child. An awkward adolescent. A blushing schoolgirl with a crush on her English teacher.
In the end she told me everything about her past, her mother, her father. Does it matter, and she would turn her head away from me. Afraid to see what was written in my eyes.
Of course it doesn’t matter to me, I would say but I knew she didn’t believe me. I knew she wanted more. Thought that she wasn’t good enough.
Lack of mother love and abandonment issues, the woman from Lifeline told me once on the phone. I had telephoned them when I was at my wit’s end.
When the road ahead just became a road. Yes, this museum could make me remember her small red hands planting seeds. Lifting her up in my arms. Turning the shower on.
Sometimes she would put her hands around my neck and we would pretend that we were slow dancing. Put some music on. Eric Clapton. Nirvana. Opera. Classical. I want Mozart.
That was our code. Her code. She wanted to be close to me. She wanted me to hold her so she would say that she wanted Mozart.
Just play anything so I can get these voices out of my head. So I can get sane again. So I can love you, and love me, and love our life together.
(Eating a good meal was like therapy to her.) If only the people at work could see me, she would chant. I never interrupted. Just listened. Her thoughts had cage doors.
I had keys to all of them. I was an easy man. I was a lucky man to have found Catherine when I did. You were so quiet, she said that night. The night she killed herself.
Oh if I ever did it I would want you to find me, Joseph, and not one of the children, heaven forbid! This living, this life is not for everyone. It’s not for me. I was always the outsider.
The alien. Now her word became my own. Alien. I just realised this the other Sunday after church that it had always been a part of her personality, her identity. Not fitting in.
This popularity game with the mothers of her children’s classmates. I work, she said. I want my daughters and my son to respect that.
If I had been a stay at home mother that would have killed me. I mean I don’t have anything to talk to them about. What do I do Joe, swap recipes?
Tell me what I should do, my wife said with tears in her eyes. Dad, come home quickly. Mum is going crazy again. Theo has locked himself in his room and he is listening to rock music.
I remember this conversation in the museum as if it was yesterday. I picked up the phone in my office at the newspaper where I worked and heard a muffled voice.
You have to look through all the windows of love first before you become engaged (your life for your love), invest your all your wire mesh, muscle, your seed for the kingdom of heaven.
People always think I have it all together. I mean it was like that all through school. University. I have won awards. My father had a reputation. I always had to be the perfect daughter.
After all this time I can still hear Catherine’s voice inside my head. She was my life. Fragile Catherine. The outside world engulfed her and she went up in flames.
I imagine many things. I have that kind of time on my hands. Catherine did not grow old. We did not go to Bali or Singapore. The only person that she really hated was herself in the end.
So we married. She needed me. We had children. Two daughters and a son and she kept her promise. I had brought her back from the brink of anxiety but I could not keep her safe.
I could not keep away her obsession. The delusions. I didn’t understand. I could have helped her in a thousand ways. I would have if I would have known how to reach her.
Wherever the flat edge of normal was. Catherine the investment banker. The autumn witness who stained my memory. The angry only child. She didn’t want to go to a clinic. The stigma.
Yes, she got that from her father, she confessed to me one night over a glass of red wine. Her father was also an angry only child. His issues had marked her difficult adolescence.
Catherine was a complex woman. She was intelligent and beautiful. She had a great laugh. This weaver who made cloth and the fabric out of everything she touched.
Here in the museum my memory is fading but it is also haunted by pinpoints of winter, the sad streets of Johannesburg, the search for light in the darkness of nightfall. Birds fly away.
Catherine was from Johannesburg. In those early days I was a journalist at a tabloid. We were both starting out but after our marriage I decided to bring her to my hometown.
A place where we could build a life together, raise a family, build good futures for our children. Catherine, my Catherine. Heat and dust in her hair. A Mona Lisa smile on her face.
There’s something ancient about that. Grief is meant for the river. The shadow of evening. The shroud of a kite squeezed into a child’s hand. A child clutching at energy.
I am a complex blur. I am a child again in this museum. Fascinated by this dark world, the gaps carved inside the thousand-fold memories that the ocean inside my head carries.
I turn to look for her but she is no longer here. She has done what she thought was impossible and took her own life.
So I come here, to this museum every afternoon or so, whenever I feel depressed, thinking of Catherine in my arms, stroking her face. So pale. So blue.
The Catherine before we had the three children, the big upstairs-downstairs house, spacious family car. Every week we would eat out at a restaurant.
Christine in London working for Sony, Theo in and out of rehab, and our angel, Gertrud in Prague with her offspring, her Czech husband. Gertrud had married a doctor.
Gertrud had always been in and out of jobs. Photographer, working as a freelance journalist in print media, a researcher for a television production company in South Africa.
On holiday to Prague with some university friends she had met the love of her life and decided to make Prague her home and work for Amazon.
Our creative bunny, Catherine called her. She of course blamed herself for Theo. We should have seen the signs but the thing I tried to tell her was that there were no signs.
I am standing in a meadow now. Fishing. Fishing for Jesus and thinking that he would be lucky to have me because I am a sinner. Inside my head. Blank. Just an empty space for flying fish.
I push open the front door. I am alone. I heat my Woolworth’s ready-to-eat supper of spaghetti bolognaise in the microwave.
I eat at the kitchen table. Waves of my only lover’s voice smash into me repeatedly. I pick up the phone and dial Lifeline’s number. Hello, I feel like an alien, I say.
I am not coping. I go to church. I pray. I’ve become a Christian again. I am saved but I still feel like an alien.
I look out at the window. At just how perfect the day is and was reminded of Catherine repeatedly. Her energy. Her sexual energy. Her joie de vivre for life and that I was an old man.
Image: Pixabay.com remixed
A truly wonderful story!