What it takes to build muscle in a mysterious, intriguing world.
You weave the awful, the terrible things that happened to you as a child into a story. You remember the bonds of family, the pathways to the familiar, the horrors of sexual assault, fighting the grave monsters within, and human suffering, injustice, wave after wave of finding intimacy in the moveable feast of the sexual transaction. There is horror in intimacy too and when we find it we usually look away. The brutality of man against man, that raw, animalistic anger, that pure force, that intimate walk and the fact that we must remind ourselves of who we are every day and just how much memory work that takes to roost, to brood, to reject, to dance to every ritual, wash away every sin. It seems as if all her life she has been in the pursuit of love and prayer. The light illuminates everything around her, the ghosts from her present to her past and the future ones, there’s a sadness to the day as if all the world’s burdens are upon it, another holocaust, another genocide, another otherworldliness. She is guarded and withdrawn. Her last love affair ended badly and now she must make up for it. She takes long walks either alone or with her father. She has come home. The wind is up and so is her mood but she knows it won’t be for long until history catches up with her, the frustration of suicidal illness, mental illness, the stigma of it in the community, amongst her estranged family, feeling lost without the history of courage and prayer in the wilderness. Decay has broken out from the stem of her heart and all around her are volcano people. She listens to them in a daydream day in and day out. She can’t go back to Johannesburg. She can’t go back to Swaziland. She can’t go back to Cape Town. There is no longer family there, threads that can connect her to her old life and besides she was always on the verge of a nervous breakdown when she was there. It is so cold now but the sun is still there, up in the sky, shining for what it was worth. Her mood veered from pensive to anxious (a separation anxiety). The rain has come and there is no longer dry soil in which nothing can grow or flower, the burning sand at the beachfront is gone, children do not play outside with their bicycles and quad bikes and balls. They’ve all gone inside. She does not hear their voices. Her brother is outside though smoking but the more that he reveals himself she discovers that he is not so tough and she feels sorry for him, sorry for his girlfriend, sorry for her family and most of all sorry for his angelic son. And she thinks to herself if she ever does it, kills herself, will she leave the car running, slit her wrists, jump off a bridge, hang herself or take an overdose of sleeping pills. She doesn’t take it seriously though. She knows she would never do it. It is not because she is not brave enough; she just does not have it within her. She has a big mouth like the comfort she gets from strangers, their velocity. Once in a house on fire, always in a house on fire. She always wanted to be surrounded by men. Their feverishly brilliant power, their scrapbooking intelligence and she was under the idea that somehow it would patch up her childhood like a tapestry and lonely adolescence. They were the ones who taught her poetry (how fresh and novel it could be), the bewildering movement of the memoir, the dynamic art of film and how it could give her a lifeline, anchor her buoyantly. But it took her a long time to realise she was never the exclusive one. And when she did it shattered something like glass within her. When you’re broken, when, how and where do you go from there? When you realise there are children in the picture and perhaps other lovers too.
All her life she had been unafraid even of the sexual impulse in man and other women but then accidents began to happen all the time. A lot began to happen around her. Arguments, derisive comments in the workplace, the sexual harassment (boys being boys thinking that women were just toys, play things, that young, tall, wallflower, inexperienced temp). In Johannesburg she did not eat, she could not sleep at night, she tossed and turned turning over visions of the day in her head, the sexual disorder, how she told herself over and over that there were no things such as ghosts but she still put the sheet over the mirror that looked like a river at night. A river that could reveal faces scissoring through the dark blue air and tell stories. Everything was bittersweet about Johannesburg, darkly blank, ghosts swimming, ghosts surfing and she was the poised quiet woman, the sinner that moved from room to room until to the end of the world. Cape Town was a very, very lonely place but in Swaziland she met up with good citizens, young people, old people, children, black faces, white faces, brown faces, hair with different texture, straight, ironed, curly, relaxed with chemical treatments, blonde. They all had enchanting faces – the girls and boys – enchanting accents, came from all over Africa. An Africa she had never seen or heard of before. They all seemed to live idyllic lives in this green feast of rolling hill after rolling hill and twisting valleys. This was the empire of the exotic coloured superwoman and the older sky until winter infiltrated it and for the first time she saw snow. She loved the night in Swaziland. It left her breathless, a dreamer, on the war path with scars, poems about her mother and the wild sea of Port Elizabeth. Wilderness was a wilderness. Her family and she went to a church there, stayed at a hotel, never went near the beach, and spent most of their time in the swimming pool or on the tennis court. The chlorine burned her eyes. Her brother and she would go swimming at night seeing how long most of the time who could hold their breath the longest under water. George was a widow’s song. It was a sad town. She didn’t like the energy there.
And then there was her other life. The opposite of sex. Elizabeth Donkin, Hunterscraig Clinic, Tara, Valkenburg and Garden City Clinic. The source of everything. Madness, despair, darkness, nightmares, scar tissue, my adventures in the silent night, in the light of day, yonder and the devil. All the girls she has ever met in her life are bone girls who have probably become bone women. No ghost of terminal illness or chronic disease have they. Their blood is clean like the head of an exile child. They’re not wounded in any way. They do not speak with their hands, with that slight tremor that comes with the taking of Epilizine. There were men in her family who drank and women in her family who drink and how they all bordered on the wilderness history, us women with our cold hands and our cold feet and our madness. It is our men, our people who have taught us to discard our values like the emperor’s new clothes and to drink (to drink like they do, to drink them under the table).
Was I not the best little girl in the world?
Spoilt, yes, but why do we have to grow up so fast? I really have let myself go in a dream sequence. I eat thirds of everything. Beautiful girls were his great enduring love. My great enduring love’s love. Once you, you bright eyes were my muse, texture like sun and what a precious cargo you were. Only you fell among the stars never to return. My frankincense, and myrrh. So I am left in mourning while you pass me by, a fragile beauty. I am left with my dope-smoking addict of a brother, with his cigarettes, stale smoke and moustache for male company. Ash tray filled with cigarette ends. The years have changed us into people we do not find familiar in any way. Brothers and sisters. Our lives are defined by who we are, memories, marked by trials and sadness. The pulse is a parachute opening and closing, shutting its mouth. The practical magic of it all. I will always remember the memory of love. It will never shut me out. I love my brother like I love my great enduring love; the pursuit of him was always bordering on wilderness and madness. There is darkness even in an echo. A movement of the creator in solitude that lingers and in that moment I am holding onto nothing. There is blues in a cold street. If I trace its breaking point I come across the eternity of the primitive impulse. The sea river is a cold impasse. Will I find secrets there? In my dream I am standing on a frozen lake, the second sex and I can hear female voices all around me. Some are comforting just like a prayer as if to give me the courage of my convictions and I get the feeling that they are teaching me the elementary wisdom of survival skills. But the voice of my one true love is no longer heard. No longer golden. No longer the voice of a male writer. As foe or beautiful it is not just enough to exist anymore. I have to find a way out of this celestial madness. But trust me it can be good for the bones. Like Paris. I wish I had a dress that I could go anywhere with but I am not one of those girls who purge their unhappiness like that. All I want is a childhood continued swarming, magnetic, like spiritual children attracting like. What has become of me? What will become of me in this ghost nation?
The child comes to me. His mother gives him to me. I don’t know why they trust me with him. I feel I can hurt him the way I was hurt as a child. Ethan. He is precious, a precious innocent. I gave him that name. He sits on my lap. My brother’s son. He is sucking his fingers. He has long lashes and dark brown eyes like his father. He is pretty. He is as pretty as a girl. He has eczema on his neck. Every night and morning after his bath his mother rubs aqueous cream into the inflamed parts of his peeling skin. His face is white-pale like snow, flour, a cloud with a silver lining. You can see he has Germanic ancestry. He is two months old. Ethan smiles at me. There’s a supernatural energy from his unyielding gaze. Love changes everything for the sinner, the return comes with it, the immortal, and so does bright fame. Fish. Fish and chips. The survival kit for life is eating, in food, food for thought, food that nurtures the body. I breathe in the lemon wedge, white fish and the vinegar. I want to be normal like Alice in her trippy wonderland. I grace. Daddy bows his head. The bones of this year has left us with much breathing lessons. I want to swim away from the tigers. In the morning daddy exercises while I drink my lukewarm coffee. Sometimes tea. Sometimes coffee. I have to watch him now. I have to watch over him now. He could double over. He could fall. He could wet himself. Yesterday we laughed and laughed and laughed at Marc Lottering, this famous South African comedian, and that is what we do as a family these days. We laugh, we smile, we hug Ethan, and we cry. We watch sex, lies and videotape. What are we trying to forget? Who are we trying to forgive? Where do we go from here? We eat sleeping pills, medication that can be bought over the counter, Melatonin, Pax and Ativan like cake and I hope that God forgives us. God has given us Ethan, a blessing in disguise. Isn’t a child always the first wave of consciousness? I’m reminded of Jesus and the Pharisees when I look at him, the blood orange sky that I wrote about once in a poem about me and my brother, Auschwitz (what an evil man and an evil German woman was once and perhaps still is capable of), Roman Polanski of all people and his ‘The Pianist’, even Woody Allen after watching his films for most of my life and following his life and there are so many things and journeys and paths that are open to Ethan, our little dreamer, our little prince. I pray that all the love letters that roll from my heart can help navigate his journey a little bit more as he grows older. In his eyes I forget time, burnt diaries, that old voyage into midnight, and ballads.
I forget that I am growing older and one day I will be an old woman. I couldn’t get past the first five pages of J.M. Coetzee’s ‘Elizabeth Costello’. It was so difficult. ‘Slow Man’ too, so I meandered through it, page by page, sometimes with overwhelming wonder and awe but for some strange reason or other I was attracted to ‘The childhood of Jesus’ than any of his other books. I loved it. I would definitely give it a second read. Poor Michael K. ‘Summertime’ and ‘Age of Iron’ are also firm favourites. Sad. Suffering is sad. Terminal illness is suffering is sad. And so is poverty and alcoholism and trying to save the world when it is certainly not up to you. Who makes those decisions? The creator of the universe? God? Those with a higher learning like the elders, with Peter Gabriel on the piano singing ‘Biko’ on an island? Obsessed with Plath and Hughes, Diana, the English, Shakespeare and the Kennedys. Why did they have all those children? Obsessed with Brink and black butterflies. Obsessed with Gordimer. Obsessed with J.M. Coetzee, why Salinger lived as a recluse until the end of his life. Obsessed with Holden Caulfield. Obsessed with Dambudzo Marechera, Kevin Carter, Dulcie September and Ken Oosterbroek. And why did David Foster Wallace kill himself? Obsessed with the Opera House, white South Africa, New Brighton, Zwide, the Serpent Players and Athol Fugard, Winston Ntshona and John Kani. Obsessed with Mamphele Ramphele. Who is Brutus, Arthur Nortje, Richard Rive, and Chris van Wyk? Men of colour, race, distinction, honour, literary men every one. Scholars of trivia. Distinguished scholars of trivia. ‘Disgrace’ was the most disturbing book I’ve ever read next to ‘Lolita’. Do you ever really learn from the best or do you learn from your own mistakes as a writer, a poet, a princess? And so I am surrounded by books and films, good and bad, the fantastic and the terrible, Hollywood propaganda and European films, directors from outside the Hollywood slipstream, music, modern and bold pop, classical and opera and pasta. I am slowly starting to realise I will never be a Sophia Loren. I will never be an actress (once upon a time I was when I was a child, a beautiful child but then you grow up and you’re no longer cute and funny like the Easter bunny. You’re sullen and fussy and don’t see the relevance of having to perform all the time even if you don’t have an opinion). Actresses these days want to be movie stars and star in perfume advertisements. They want to sell make up (doubt if they wear the stuff they get for free) and walk the ramp, be socialites, drink champagne with diet pills. They want everything. Beautiful women are dangerous. They do not want children who have sticky fingers, who jam their fingers in a door and cry out for them, reach out for them, who scream and shout back at them. Women are manipulative. They’re secretive. They’re insecure. They want luxuries like dark chocolate and diamonds. They want love and attention, and sometimes a child’s adoration is simply not enough. There has been ample proof of this over the years between me and my mother. My mother is still a beautiful woman. My sister is a beautiful girl. They are attentive but not attentive listeners. I keep my anticipatory nostalgia to myself. I cry for the Germans and I cry for the Jews. Makes no difference that one side was pure evil and the other were victims of heinous war crimes and human rights violations. One day there was a wall of tyranny and the next there wasn’t in Germany. But the circle of propaganda continues. My mother has a pill and herbs for everything. The incense stick she lights up smells like perfume, aromatherapy oil, Fordsburg in Johannesburg, full of small bustling fabric shops, people selling Indian food, second hand clothes, second hand jeans with no buttons or zips, gift shops selling an array of saris. It smells like my second home Johannesburg (my second home no more). I am never going to return to Johannesburg. Too much hurt, deep pain, suffering. I had my first depression there. My first everything. My first boyfriend. My first kiss. It was where my first relationship began, faded completely into ancient history, into dust and ended. For Carol Ann Duffy an onion is a wedding ring. And I wait and it hurts. It cuts like a knife. Like my sister’s silence.
I forget that I am growing older and one day I will be an old woman. I dream of becoming an Alice Munro or a Doris Lessing. Does it sound like Gordimer? Does it sound like Coetzee or Rive or van Wyk or does it sound as if I am my own person finally coming into myself? There is an awareness, and it is a significant one. I remember my dreams and I am not supposed to. Genetics says so. In the heart of darkness there was a married man. In the beginning I did not know he was married and the friendship, aspects of it were important to me and I lost that when I lost him. He had a strong personality with intricate patterns to his spirit this introverted leader. How was I supposed to know he did not love me, the difficulty of the measure of love, as difficult as I found algebra, geometry and trigonometry, algorithms and logs? I could not anchor them elegantly to the page no matter how hard I tried. I just could not help being brilliantly overwhelmed by them, how they made waves. Our South Africa is a violent one. Caught up day to day in stigma, brutality, rape, sexual violence, sexual frustration, mental illness, suicidal illness, terminal illness, ‘love favours’ (sodomy behind prison walls), extraordinary children lost to the sexual transaction, romance, pregnancy and death (death before their time) and tik. We’re lost in self-help. We want to love but we’re afraid too, much too afraid of loss and the measure of it, of being absent and not present when courage and motivation requires it of us and so we all lead a double life, damaged, seduced and hurt by the pressures of life, the miracle of it, its oppressive quality, curiosity. Dream it and you will believe it, genetics says.
And I forget that I am growing older and one day I will be an old woman.
© Abigail George