It began in childhood.
We were dragged to the library every Saturday morning, with our overdue books, and the outrageous fines we had to pay. Three children holding onto their library cards as if it was a golden ticket, a lottery ticket, a winning scratch card. Three children with bright eyes, gossamer hair, already with the most perfect volcano-garden inside their mind’s eye, with the ladder of genes from an unconventional, cultured, educated daddy, an intelligent and elegant mother ‘amidst-the-roots-of-oblivion’, the looking glass of imagination, planting the stems of illumination, the feast of illusion, all the dimensions of possibility all found in children’s books. The librarians’ only ‘communication’ with us was with their phantom limbs when they stamped our books that we had to return in two weeks’ time. And so the three of us would depart with daddy. Walk out of the swinging doors to the waiting car in the parking lot. Our heads admiring ‘our presents under the fake Christmas tree’. For daddy it was like a birthday present for him.
Three children would look at the covers of their chosen afternoon, evening, future delight over and over again deciding which to start reading first. Every book had their own silver lining, its own identity-kit of case studies, children who had complicated parents, and a humanity that was as complex as any child who kept a diary, a child’s brain. The surface of the pages of library books, especially the Encyclopaedia Britannica, had a certain down-to-earth smell like linen being ironed on the kitchen table, my old man, a pineapple, spaghetti, winter revisited as if it had had a wide exposure to the hands of many children. As soon as we got home we marched into our bedrooms as fast as our skinny-matchstick legs could carry us with the books as heavy as the weight of water under our arms with the love that we reserved for mummy, the awe that we had for our father, a school principal and the love that we stored up for Jesus. That’s how much we loved reading. To us it wasn’t just a hobby. It opened doors. Gave us vertigo.
It was our cure in response to the childhood continued, our hallucinogenic medicine for Alice-in-wonderland. Her white rabbit and the fragmentary Cheshire cat’s smile. We had a profound respect for literature, rigorous discipline and for silence. This had always been instilled in us since birth. Our ‘feet stuck in a cement bucket’ as soon as we began to read. We all read from an early age. In adolescence it was Shakespeare’s sonnets, reading newspapers in primary school and cutting out interesting articles that we would recite parrot fashion for our orals, and in the benches of the classrooms of high school English I discovered the wuthering heights of Athol Fugard’s mecca, Bessie Head, Lady Macbeth, Maru, Salinger’s Holden Caulfield sitting behind a school desk in Port Elizabeth, Swaziland and Johannesburg. Eventually we grew up. And ‘it’ – reading, browsing, instructions on writing, the Athol Fugard phenomenon – became our therapy; we were therapist-and-patient, psychologist and therapist’s chair so-to-speak.
Writers became our waiting rooms. And sometimes the three of us could even see self-portraits of ourselves in the protagonists of the stories which made us love the books, the respected writers even more. And then all five of us discovered poetry (Keats, Khalil Gibran, and Rumi). Hemingway (who needs absolutely no introduction), J.D. Salinger, J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Paulo Coelho, and Rainer Maria Rilke, and Sharon Olds. The North American paper tiger empress Sylvia Plath, the cuckoo-bird Anne Sexton, ‘the black butterflies’ of Ingrid Jonker, ‘the anticipatory nostalgia’ of Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, Anne Kavan, Ann Quin, Assia Wevill, Carol Ann Duffy and Ted Hughes. Female, feminist, protest poets, male poets, the war poets, the Romantics, I fell in love with all of them. In the end I couldn’t make up my mind whether I wanted to be a poet or a short story writer, so now I’m inspired to do both. The pressure sustains me in the climate of the hours and the loneliness of the primitive interloper.
When everything was still safe (in love nothing is safe, love regarded, love departed), sacred (childhood rituals are sacred) and there was no exposure to graphic pornography, substance abuse, domestic violence, letters to a brother in rehab, detectives in plainclothes in our house late at night (that would come later). I fell in love immediately with the colour of water when I was a child. A calm would settle over me. You could not take that calm away from me. All I would ever think about when boredom came over me in a classroom as I sat behind a school desk pretending to pay attention was her lips, her mouth, and the deceased. The live wires of my dendrites existence would pale and I would forget that there were test tubes of my blood somewhere in a laboratory. I would swim lap after lap gracefully. The glass edges of my suicidal depression would dissolve into thin air, so would the colour of love, the lack of mother-love, my nerves aqua, my hot internal monologue would not be as hot as it was before.
Like rage, or perfume. For all of my childhood swimming pools were always inviting. I hated winter. I loved the cold.
Isn’t it strange, this stranglehold? That it has on me? Isn’t it solitary? What does this beauty mean? Shadows and darkness come with this daughter. The splendid stars are not in isolation.
They coexist with the man on the moon. The decoding of the bloodline of lovely atoms and omnipotent particles. Those late bloomers. Photocopies of them. Her body remains untouched. The virgin suicide ballooning up into the ether. You are wrong. I love you very, very much. I love how you treat me like paper. I loved how you destroyed me. I loved how you sabotaged me again and again. I loved how you freed me, my chrysanthemum. My lotus flowering in the mud. I loved how you killed me in the end. That and how I stuck to the winter sun and needed no introduction to it. Out came gratitude. It had the energy of small hours of the morning, illness. And in the end there wasn’t anything of myself left. No more tenderness. I was not loved. I went cuckoo like a clock.
I was a serious philosopher, a deep thinker, screaming intellectual, a nun in contemplation, a yogi in meditation. A guru surrounded in an environment of marigolds with his disciples but my head’s instinct taught me that it was not enough. Just the cold revisited. Another playground that felt that I was in the grip of something. Something grim. The jaws of something. Perhaps a bee season, or the harvesting of vegetables from the soil. Carrots, potatoes, radishes bursting with tap roots, vitality, ripe colours and health. I want to be a child again in my mother’s house. I want to feel that splendiferous anxiety I used to feel as a child when she pushed me away when I tried to make eye contact with her or just have a coffee. I wanted her to smile so badly. Instead in my thirties I turn to literature, to libraries, to feminism, to my writing grants, and you see I need to dream about the goals I had when I was a child and my heart was full of gratitude for a father who sheltered me from a mother who did not love me.
And when I think of that elegant woman all I can think about is all the elegant and sophisticated women in the world and the long drives my father took me out on Sunday afternoons. He took me away from her. Away from the woman whose garden was filled with petals with a myriad of colours. Flying objects, leafy green trees, ivy. The sensual. The magnificent. The cold creature who I called ‘mummy’. I wanted to tell the world I loved her but I couldn’t. Her name was Catherine. It was not love. It was war. Of course the bullets weren’t real only heart-shaped. Did I put that dark smile on her face? I would walk for hours just thinking. I never took my glasses off when I kissed her even when the night air was filled with stars and starlight. She was my wasabi, my sushi, my emergency service when I was out of sorts, out of balance. She helped get me through the day. She was tall. I remember that.
I am a drunkard, a coward, as I close my eyes and try and forget those cowboy boots, those eyes, those eyes and I know in time I will forget. I will forget everything. And so will you. And with it will come all these years and I have waited for nothing. Wasted years. Threads.
Every single one. I am still a daughter though and that hasn’t changed.
It is my body that has remained untouched for years, a knowing wasted youth, and a promiscuous youth. All I feel now is buoyant pain. And it hurts indescribably. I am twenty-two years old or perhaps I am younger. Perhaps I am nineteen years old on antidepressants fresh out of hospital. I am writing letters to the editor of my local newspaper to pass the time. I do not use a pseudonym. I use my real name. It is winter in Johannesburg and this is my first love affair with an older man. He understands me the way my father understands me. I say I’m terrified and he holds me close. I say, ‘Don’t leave me.’ And he holds me closer still. Still I am afraid because I know how this will end. It will end terribly. I am no longer thin. I have convinced myself that men do not love women who have cellulite or stretch marks where they have carried a child in their womb. He takes my hand and tells me not to cry. There are many women who can’t have children.
And he tells me that one day I will have a family of my own. Was this love? Was this it? And I look at him with tears in my eyes and I ask him, ‘Is this as good as it gets?’ And then we fight and he leaves me there in the hotel room with some money. And I cry myself to sleep twisting the sheets between my legs, clenching and unclenching my fists, asking myself why did this have to happen to undeserving me? This was not supposed to happen. I was supposed to fall in love like my mother and my father. My mother got married at twenty-five. I’m falling. I’m afraid that no one will ever love me. I am afraid that one day I will be old and as I speak I am growing older and with youth no longer on my side men will no longer desire me. It takes brutal guts to live in this world if you are without a companion, someone to go home to and the world seems a colder, stranger place than it has ever been before and you’re the winter guest. You seem more estranged from people that you haven’t seen in years, been to school with.
Your immediate family and you try and make connections again and again with them. Oh how you try and make contact but their eyes are like ice when you meet them in person. The tone of their voices at the end of the line makes your blood run cold. And there you are just prolonging the intensity of the pain, the velocity and the density of the hope that you have that they will think you clever, find you marvellous, invite you to suppers where feasts are spread out on their dining room tables but soon you will find that this is no life for you. And you cannot fix this.
‘Would you like to go to America?’ he asks me one evening just out of the blue. ‘You’re clever. You can make something of yourself there you know. Study, work for an NGO, do research. What about an Ivy League university?’ And he puts his fork down on his plate.
I never drink wine when we go out. I hate the taste of that stuff especially red wine and he smokes but I don’t mind that that much. He’s different when he drinks after a heavy meal. His lovemaking is different. All I want to do is talk about books, literature, documentary filmmakers and films. He thinks that I should go to the gym and work out. He thinks I am anti-social. If runners could slip into the fabric of time then I wished I could do the same thing.
‘I’ll be lonely in America.’ I say pouting.
‘You’re sulking now. Please don’t spoil the mood of this evening. Be an adult. Be responsible for once in your life. And now you’re not eating. Don’t you like what I’ve ordered?’
People are turning around in their seats in the restaurant to look at us. They can probably overhear our conversation but I don’t care if I am making a scene.
‘It’s raw fish.’ And I pull a face.
‘My baby doll. It’s a delicacy Abigail and you always want me to be the one who orders for both of us. I asked if you wanted the roast beef and you said no. I asked if you wanted pasta and you said no. I asked if you wanted chicken and you said no. My heart really goes out to you. My heart bleeds for you. My heart can’t take the food you eat. Everything you eat is vegan or whole-wheat or pilchards or tuna or something that comes out of a can.’ And as if he has said nothing he continues to eat.