I watch her. I watch her. Tell my brother and sister to look out of the other car window. I think they are playing some game. I think that they think this is a game. They’re too young to understand. My mother is on a mission. She is looking for my father. She thinks he is having an affair. She confronts him in the parking lot. He says nothing. It is not as if he does not know where to look but I know that it is not true. Not papa. Not my father. She is screaming at him now. I don’t know whether people are looking now, looking at the two of them, at this scene being played out in front of their eyes or looking away.
I destroy my childhood diary when we get home. I am a child. I am wounded now for life. I don’t know what to do. So this is what I do. I tear page by page out. I scratch out paragraphs. You don’t understand how much I loved this book, this journal, but I don’t understand yet how to express my feelings, my imagination. My father gave me this book. Every year he has given me a diary in January. ‘This is yours. This is your journal.’ And I smile up at him, and with this book in my hands I can write anything I want. Who do I believe? I am my father’s daughter. I look like him. I don’t look anything like her, my mother. I know she hates me. Perhaps they will separate. Perhaps they will get a divorce. They drive home in separate cars. I am numb, struck dumb. I say nothing. My mother is driving too fast. It is unlike her. Her dress is above her knees. Is this what love is? Human nature is human nature. ‘Daddy,’ I say later. ‘I don’t think she’s your soul mate. I don’t think you’re meant for each other.’ But he says nothing, he just winks.
Sexual intercourse, that transaction, lovemaking for me was always dirty. I wanted to remain a virgin forever, pure. I wanted to be a nun. I knew I had to be punished from an early age, make sacrifices, always wear black, and kneel when I had to pray but I was not Catholic. But my mother put that idea straight out of my head. She told me that there were no nuns anymore and then I wanted to be a priest but everybody knows how corrupt church leaders are. I knew that I felt damaged, bereft, and lonely even as a child so I found comfort in books. Even when I grew older and watched films where girls would remove their articles of clothing watched by an aroused older man I would feel nothing. Absolutely nothing. Maybe it came from childhood. The orgasm in both the male and the female disgusted me. Maybe it stemmed from the fact that I hated my mother who I thought had been so wrong, so incompatible with my father (whatever had they spoken about when he wooed her I certainly do not know. He was cultured and educated, he had a degree and she could type thirty-five words a minute and she had a diploma) but I loved my father and worshipped him. And for all my life I have wanted a perfect love and not a physical love. All my life I have wanted to be protected from all of life’s storms, other women, younger women, girls, I wanted to be given a sanctuary to write and as an adult I would watch the flickering images of pornography silently screaming with laughter inside. So this is what men and women would do to conceive children, their bright angels, and heirs to thrones of addiction, substance abuse and domestic violence. There would be little or no dialogue. I would get either insanely jealous of their stupid voices even though I knew every little thing from the props to the bed was fake. Why couldn’t I do that? What was so wrong with me? After all they were merely actors acting, doing what they were told to do, posed, directed, and projecting. I was bored with it all and wondered where my head was. Of love and sex I knew absolutely nothing at all. It bored me but not the love story, not the loss, the reject or rejection, the lover male or female leaving. Little slut, little whore, those weren’t words that bored me, that bothered me. And as I grew up the girl in me died when my mother told me what happens in this house, what is said in this house stays in the house. I came of age very quickly. Abuse will do that to you. Abuse at the hands of your mother, aunts (her sisters, her sister-in-law) the Johannesburg people, bullies on the playground, arrogant male teachers, and your first boyfriend when you are away from home, ten years older than you. Did he force me to do things I did not want to do? It hurt. They say it always does the first time round. I wrote him letters but I was not in love with him. The image I had of my parents watching two naked girls swimming, kissing with tongue, feeling each other as they come out of the water, touching each other, touching each other up and down, caressing their arms, their bodies. They sunbathed nude. It was the first time I had seen breasts, the voluptuousness of a woman’s figure and full frontal nudity. And something inside of me, a little voice said that my future life as a daughter who loved both her mother and father and a future life as wife, lover and mother had not only been sabotaged but ultimately destroyed forever. I was just a child who should have been asleep in bed dreaming. Attempted suicide is done with both eyes shut. This is not my time. No tunnel of white light. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. The confessional poets. Sylvia, Abigail the exhilarated crazies. Look at me. The South African horror story. A landscape made of bars at the window, psychiatrists, and psychologists.
The nervous breakdown, bipolar, mental illness, crazy, insane, lunacy is not written on the body unless you tattoo it on your arm with a razor blade or cutting. You can be the perfect child but can your mother perfectly love you in a flawed world, in her flawed world. She did not want me with my effortless merits, my stage plays and rehearsals, my stories, oh no, she especially did not want to read my stories. ‘Leave it next to my bed.’ She said. ‘I’ll read it before I fall asleep.’ And I did but she had more important work to do. Shower, dress, make breakfasts, and go to work. ‘Oh, I’ll read it later.’ She said whenever I confronted her about it. She was doing even much more important work then. Watching her soap opera with her stockinged feet up on the sofa chair, her heels next to it with her eyes half-closed, dreamy, Hitler but without the moustache and the wall of tyranny. ‘Kiss me.’ She demanded from my asthmatic brother wearing his cowboy hat pulling his wagon around the family room. And I made endless cups of tea. And as I made each cup my heart would fill with hope that she would say, ‘My clever girl. You’re growing up so fast.’ But of course she never did. We were scavengers. We ate what we could find in the kitchen and if daddy wasn’t pensive he would go out and buy us something to eat for supper.
My father would cry a lot and I would put my arm around his shoulder, barely reach it though and ask him, ‘Do you want to talk about it?’ but that just made him cry harder and it was even more difficult to make him stop. I was always near the top of my class but there were issues, damages. They were always fighting.
‘Good night mummy. Sleep tight. Sweet dreams. I love you.’ No answer in return and it bounces off walls. I am turning thirty-five bordering on thirty-six. It will be my birthday in two months. Valium nearby (always close), Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke next to my bed, Poems by Sylvia Plath Chosen by Carol Ann Duffy, Poet Laureate. Childlike in an adult world. The only world in which I belong is media, that and the local Olympic-sized swimming pool. Clogged in a caged childhood continued, sentences slaughtered by laughter, coughing, a closeted collection of books (textbooks, poetry and short story anthologies, a string of J.M. Coetzee’s books line a shelf, The Childhood of Jesus the latest), blackness, traffic fills the inside of me that was always the exchange. I can only fall asleep with a handful of sleeping pills. I take long naps in the afternoon and wake up in near-darkness. Pills. Pills. Pills. Pax. Epilizine. Eltroxin. Melatonin. Zopiclone. Ativan.
I have no inclination to go to Paris. Rilke hated it there but on the other hand Hemingway seemed to have taken to it like water off a duck’s back. Anyway I suffer from vertigo. Mostly people go to Paris because it is romantic. Isn’t the Eiffel tower romantic? You won’t get me up there. I am a hypochondriac and become anxious as hell when I am introduced to novel people and places. It terrifies me. What a laugh? Did she clap? Was she clapping? Is she proud of the fact that I am a storyteller and a poet, not a politician, not a politician’s wife or anybody’s wife for that matter and not the playwright or documentary filmmaker I wanted to be in high school? When she took her seat in the theatre was she proud, was she beaming from ear to ear like the Cheshire cat. Depression is boring. But I’m used to it now. Every six months I’m shipped off for a week or so to a hospital to recover from psychosis, hallucinations. What a trip for my ego? I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. My sister never comes to visit. She doesn’t live here in this country, in this hellhole anymore. She lives in Johannesburg. My glory days are over. I’m afraid they’ve gone kaput just like all the men in my life. The only thing that’s ever stayed put is my stream-of-consciousness writing, my journaling and my armchair travelling and the people that I love the most in the world dying on me when I least expect it and leaving me alone to now dance with the brave, swim with the fishes, eat slippery sardines on toast that taste like salt and light. The rooms are airy in the house. I have to remember to breathe in when I come home from the hospital. There’s not much they can do for me there but wait for the hallucinations, the psychosis to pass but the insomnia stays with me, winter’s bone to carry me home. I’m a claustrophobe in the occupational room. They leave me alone to make collages out of colourful magazines. What big eyes the pictures have if I look closely enough, long and hard enough. A hazard to myself, a danger to myself and to others. During the day everything feels cool to the touch, spacey and clairvoyant. I’m seeing things. I’m hearing things. Voices. Dead people. Spirits. Spirits need homes too. They need to be accommodated. Spaces, shapes, anything metallic, corners and angles. Please don’t bring me flowers to brighten up the space next to my bed. I’m dying but then again I’m not dying. I’m living. Such is life. I’m cold but then again these days I always feel the cold. Sylvia is coming through. She has been deeply unhappy and afraid for such a long time. Her time is running out. I feel just like humanity, everyone else even spirits need to talk things out you know.
Sylvia Plath said it best in her own words as I have written it down here word for guided word.
We live in a world where when you’re regarded as extraordinarily gifted you have to be extraordinarily brave too. So when people hurt us our first instinct is to feel as if we have incredibly screwed up, but you know what pain is just pain and we have plenty to gain from it. We have to face up to the gigantic and staggering proportions of brutality on this earth-plane some time. We have to tell ourselves boy, this is going to take some time to get used to. And maybe, just maybe the world is trying to sell our soul something, stir things up in our consciousness or tell us that our spirit needs an adjustment. No one was there. I waited and waited and waited. You know I thought someone would just turn up, show up out of the blue. Maybe Ted would have come with flowers. Maybe he would have said he was sorry. I would have said I was sorry. I was just a fragile wreck. Maybe I should blame it on my gender. Females tend to get emotional, fly off the handle you know, go kaput but that evening I just got so flustered and moody. I was filled with despair and a feeling of hopelessness. I wasn’t thinking straight and maybe if someone had been there, a friend, a terrific friend, and an angel I wouldn’t have taken my own life. I would have outlived Ted. I’m sorry. What a mess I’ve made? I saw you Assia. Ted’s little wife. His brilliant housekeeper. Stop touching my things. Stop moving them around. Ghost house. Who is the ghost? Sylvia. Sylvia Plath. Knock on my door. I cannot open it. My fingers are all thumbs. I guess that’s what happens when you become a ghost. You also cannot scream. You cannot screech. You cannot shriek because that would be very unladylike. You need a string of pearls, gloves and soft white stockings for that. I caught Assia wearing my pearls one day. I pouted the whole day in that house walking into walls, through them as if they didn’t exist, as if they weren’t there at all. Did Ted care? He was too busy making love to Assia. I could hear them. Their pillow talk, their radiant glow if glows could be heard, how sensual her excitement was to him. To all the women in the world who have survived the ups and the downs, the lows and the highs you are going to do bad things to children. You are going to forget them, to hug them, to feed them (the word nutritious won’t belong in your head or diary), that they even exist when they are standing with baffled looks on their faces in front of you and theatre tickets won’t make up for a lost childhood, a lost mother. You are going to forget say that you love them, you are going to forget to make that birthday cake and buy one instead that tastes like yesterday’s newspaper, you are going to buy fish and chips instead of slaving over the heat in the kitchen, over pots and pans, you’re going to make mistakes and live a life of regret and they will grow up and become adults who will resent you for it and perhaps stay bitter about it for the rest of their lives. You are going to want to be a sex machine and play the femme fatale for all the days of your life. And you will wonder who is this mummy, and that who is this mother-figure that they’ve meant you out to be. And home will never be the same again. Home will never be a safe place for your children. I can see the tunnel of light now and the dominions of angels standing guard. I can no longer stand guard over adult children. One depressive, one dead. Just my luck I suppose. Ted and I should never have rowed in the first place. I sent him straight into the waiting arms of Assia Wevill. Women are infinitely crueller than men. Men want women to be sex machines all the time and then when children enter the picture what happens then. Domesticity? The bliss of family life with chickens, a tiny place in the corner of the world to call your own? What terrible mistakes I’ve made. I should have stayed in America. America was my home. I was an American girl. I’m so far away now from everyone and everything that I’ve ever loved since I was a girl. Perhaps Otto will understand me now. Like father, like daughter. A daughter following in her father’s footsteps. Wake me up from this nightmare, from this terrible dream of my own doing. My perfect, perfect love W. I am Lady Macbeth. I am Lady Lazarus. Peel the bright stars off the dead scar of a sky.
Wake me up. Wake me up. Wake me up ever so gently. I feel so numb as if I can never feel anything ever again in the wide, open spaces of this world. It feels very nerve-wracking to me. I never wanted to go like this. It’s all been a terrible mistake you see. It’s just that I’ve been feeling so grim lately and it just came upon out of the blue but I have this plan. I’ll go to the beach. The beach is the perfect place to dismantle depression. I’ll go swimming in the warm ocean water. He’ll come back to me because he loves me. He can’t love her. No, he can’t. She’s terrible. She’ll be a terrible housekeeper, touching my things and not being able to keep her hands off them. I’d love to see her put an apron on and show off her cooking skills in the kitchen. She can’t even peel potatoes so how can she cook. Tell me that. How can she run the household? She knows nothing about children. Teach them German! That damned Nazi language. That damned Jewess. Warren was planning on coming. He was planning on coming to help me with the children. God, what have I done, what have I done. Forgive me. I’m counting on his silence. A cheat is a cheat is a cheat. I was honest and good. Wasn’t I honest and good or did I too play a role in his philandering? And the children? I had beautiful children. He got to love them, raise them, watch them play, watch them grow up and I didn’t. My shoes, my dress, was I even thinking of what I was wearing that evening. I remember I was wearing my white shoes, very ladylike and such and I stuck my head as far as I possibly could into the oven. I wanted to do it right you see. No turning back from there. If only I could turn the clock back and hold my fat, healthy babies again, be young again, be twenty-three and not have let him kiss me on the neck. And not let it have been a whirlwind romance. Where was the wooing, the seduction and I had hated Spain so much. He took me there on our honeymoon. He took Assia Wevill there too, his lover, my rival, the woman he left me and his young family for. And what did it matter in the end. He still won prizes, loads of them, had lady friends and young girls fawning over him, and he even got married again. Lucky strike. Handsome is as handsome does. He found love again. The butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. I’m dead aren’t I. I’m deader than dead. I’m a real nobody now. No good to anyone but they say lovely things about my poetry, about my Ariel, nothing about my sonnet that I won some prize money for, or my short stories or my second novel. I burned that. Now that was bliss. When he left me and the children alone while he was gallivanting around London with Assia I just found that I had so much time on my hands so I literally made bonfires in the yard and burned a life half-lived on truth, lies and deception. Letters, verses, correspondence, papers, anything that was important to the famous Ted Hughes. Famous in life, even more famous in death. This time I’m not coming back for real am I. I’m not going to be found alive three days later. The ghost house, that’s what his Assia called my house. They didn’t even move my body yet but I knew she was there. I could see her. She was always touching my things, moving my things around but I knew she was done for when she had the abortion. I knew then that he would never marry her. Perhaps I even knew this before he did. Oh, my words, my poetry, my Ariel and they have gained popularity over the years, they still have substance but then so again did my jealous streak, my nervous breakdown, my bipolar illness, my suicidal illness as it later turned out to be written about by female poets from a much younger generation. Say the words mental illness and you’re immediately sensationalised and stigmatised at the same time. Lucky, lucky me. Otto are you looking down at me? Are you waiting for me to cross over? Is it my time yet? Time to say my goodbyes to my beautiful Frieda? Oh I’ve been so unlucky in love. Goodbye cruel world but I say that only half in jest.
You want me to wear a ball and chain. You want me to come with you hook, line and sinker. Well, I am not anchored to this world in any shape, way or form anymore. Who will save me from myself? Ted and his line of, his succession of mistresses. I have the features of a mannequin now. No, lipstick won’t do. How do you prepare yourself for the hereafter? Will the horses of the apocalypse come for me? I’ve have a rough, rough time Otto. Sorry I didn’t come and see you but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. I needed country air that evening and rest not gas. When depression is beating on your door, don’t let that ghost in you hear me. Put your feet up, or get into bed, close your eyes and rest. Tell me how do I look? How do I look for death? Simply gorgeous, right? Simply gorgeous mess. I have to fix my face. I just have to fix my hair. I’m a mess. I’m a mess. I’m a mess. A spaced-out mess. Oh, Warren I didn’t mean for this to happen. You know me. Once I get an idea into my head. I’m so pale. I’m starving. I haven’t had anything to eat the whole day. But when death comes knocking at your door. Your time is up when your time is up. What a mess! And if there was only someone to hold me, to hold onto that evening. Could nobody tell anything was the matter, anything was wrong? Where were all my friends, my terrific, terrific friends? My partners-in-crime were nowhere to be found. Was all that I was good for was a cocktail at a book launch? My Frieda is beautiful (always has been) and that precarious act she had to balance on as a child, as an adolescent is finally no more. I guess this is my way of saying goodbye. There was a dream. I found a dream in Ted’s eyes and then the dream was no more because Assia Wevill awakened the dream in him once more. Daddy are you there? Otto, it is me your daughter, Sylvia. I am finally coming home. It’s time isn’t it? Time for me to move on, to move up skywards, cross over. Have I done bad things? Yes. So many prying eyes want to read my journals, my letters home, is my poetry not enough for them? There are papers read, exhibitions, enough said. I’m tired now. My arms are dead weight. This is what you wanted Ted. You wanted to be free. I am giving you your freedom but it comes with a price. Silence. I can’t wake up, sit up straight, talk. I must have taken something. What’s wrong with me? God, what’s wrong with me? I must be dead.
© Abigail George
Image: Hartwig HKD via Flickr