••• The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes Fiction
Across the valley’s face
Life must break you and when it does, when that reckoning comes, it comes with fire. Its flame flickers in the dark.
‘I hate it here, and also another thing I don’t want to go to that doctor anymore. She just wants to get inside my head. She plays the same song repeatedly. Love yourself, she says to me. When I come home I am surrounded by people who do not love themselves. I want to leave. I want to live with people who love each other. You just want to end each other with hate. Some kind of parents you are.’
She moves. She doesn’t want to but she does it anyway. She has to get away from home. Away from the madness. The rush of family life. Dysfunctional family life. She can’t cope anymore but she can’t see her brother and sister coping as well. So she moves in with her aunt, uncle and two daughters. Goes to school in rural Swaziland, Mbabane. Every end of the month they eat rib eye steak at a grill place. It’s her first experience of family.
She falls in love there with her teacher. She discovers a book that he wrote in the school library. He moves on to another school. She feels slighted. Humiliated. She throws herself into school and swimming. She feels awkward and unpopular. She feels angry at her mother for making her, Life was supposed to be fun. It’s fun for other girls. She wonders not for the first time what her purpose is.
Why she was born? Why is she this unhappy. She wonders why the love of her life left her. Why he never said anything about leaving this teaching position to his classes. Why he kept it a secret the way she kept the burning heart’s desire that she had for him a secret. She thinks about all the hot talk at her old school, the silent laughter that she could see in the eyes of the boys when she passed them in the hall, the sniggers in assembly.
She sixteen years old and she doesn’t look like the other girls and she always has her nose in a book.
Not romance novels. They’re not good enough for her. Not enough ‘meat’ to it, she thinks to herself. Not enough ‘strong tea’. Romance novels are like pineapple juice. No, she’s a book nerd. She is not anybody’s first choice. She doesn’t go to parties instead she eats up science fiction. She hates her hair and doesn’t know what to do with it most days.
She pulls it back from her face most days. Some days she pulls it back into a chignon but it almost always comes loose. She could see the other girls watching her. Watching her movements slyly. They didn’t speak to her but she knew what they were thinking. You don’t belong. You don’t belong here with your skinny legs. You just don’t fit but she couldn’t go home. She couldn’t face home yet.
In Mbabane, she reads books written by John Updike and Gillian Slovo. She gets lost in them the way other girls get lost in a boy’s arms. Their eyes misty and glowing. Watery. A thread to another story. There are girls with tanned limbs, They sunbathe on warm days but she is not one of them. She is not one of that crowd. Those are the popular girls.
She’s in her mid thirties now. Time flies even when you’re not having fun. She’s disappeared again into the night air. Into the drizzle making her way home on the streets of Johannesburg.
On the bus she saw a cruel man. A man wearing a leather jacket. A man with a kind, open face. A man with a shadow. A man with a beard. Their faces like apparitions. Laughing, grimacing, smiling, grinning. Turning to face her, meet her gaze, and then looking away from her again. Nothing there to hold their interest for long. There was music inside her head. Classical. Opera.
She’s tired but she’s brave. She sits in an empty seat on her guard and looks around her. That’s the documentary filmmaker in her. Always wanting to observe people, ask them questions, wanting to listen to the tragic stories about their lives, document it. There was rubbish rotting on the pavements slick with mid winter rain. Her forehead was cool. Maybe she was coming down with something.
She stared out the window on her ride home (sweet home) at the people caught in the downpour that she had just missed. Looking at their fluid and blurry limbs and their crooked little faces. It looked like they were wearing masks. She imagined their hearts. Did they still believe in humanity? There was something deformed about them. There were stars in their eyes.
She quickly looked away. Think about good things, she told herself. She clenched and unclenched her fists. Honestly, deep down she couldn’t stand to look at the outside world anymore. There were two teenagers on the bus looking at each other with adoration in their eyes. They were holding hands. The girl kissed the boy’s cheek and her smiled at her. She looked away. She found that she could not stand that show of love.
She’s tough. She has to be tough now but she’s also angry. She knows what waits for her at the end of this ride. Another lonely evening. She does not know what to do about the grief yet. The untimely passing of her father. Her father who always told her that she was his angel, a blessing in disguise.
She’s going home to her mother. The matriarch of the family. Who is also brave, tough, strong. They will eat a light supper. Retire to their rooms. The rooms filled with silence. Self-contained interiors made of shadows like she had seen on the bus. Shadows of the movement of the sun. Luminous, glowing, the illuminating glare of the day coming to an end.
She will forget that once she was a film student. She had shown a great deal of promise in her early twenties. A great deal of promise of becoming a someone’s wife. She goes to the room and opens her journal after washing the dishes and she writes about that summer. The summer she became a woman.
‘Your mind has to be open when you first live in the city. You become aware of so many things. A mouth is not just a mouth, lips are not just lips, hands are not just hands, and touch is not just touch when you are young. It is easy to waste these things on people who are not worthy of your time. You will flower when a man touches you for the first time, and it will feel like magic but he will soon lose interest and fall in love with another.’
‘Life must break you and when it does, when that reckoning comes, it comes with fire. Its flame flickers in the dark. You’re beautiful, they will tell you in unison. You’re wiser than your years, they will sing in unison. You’re lovely. You remind me of my wife. She was a girl just like you when I met her. Some will leave you more alive than you’ve ever felt before. Some will remind you of your father. Some will come bearing gifts but never understand why that never makes you happy.’
‘Some will leave you, your shoulders hunched, you lying in the foetal position on the bed in the hotel room with the fresh towels, the bathroom that smells of soap, shampoo, the television turned down low, and the untouched room service. He will ask you if he must make you a coffee after breaking your heart. He says it very, very sweetly until you almost seem to glow from the inside out. Until you forget that he brought you here for one last tryst before he tried to make a quick getaway.’
‘What does the word ‘yes’ mean then? Permission? Submission? Men. Music. Movement. I would hold onto each of them as if they were mid winter. They were my angels for as long as the relationship lasted. The night can sometimes seem like an eternity. All of these people meant something to me at some stage but it was only a summer. One summer. Fleeting. Past is past. History. Now that girl is a stranger to me. They crushed me. Crushed my feelings. I liked that feeling it gave me.’
‘One asked me if I go to church. I answered truthfully. Said no, I hadn’t been to church for years but my mother wants me to go. She’s always thinking up of ways to get me to go usually guilt-tripping me into them but she never succeeds.Why is church so important to you, I asked him. I’m Catholic, he said as if that had to explain everything. Oh, you’re Catholic. I’m Baptist, then I was Protestant, then I was Lutheran. I thought he would find it funny. He didn’t.’
‘We kept visiting churches when I was a child. I tried to explain to him I was a Christian and I believed in God too. Don’t Catholics and Baptist worship the same God. He just looked at me like I didn’t know what I was talking about it. Like I was off my head and then I got it. We weren’t really having a conversation about religion. It was about something else altogether. It was about family, children, finances, and spirituality.’
‘I love them but I can’t be with them. You love your kids right, you have to because they came from you. The trouble that I have with them is that I don’t think they (my parents) even like me very much.’
The same bus ride. It’s not raining. Home (sweet home). What do you want for supper mother? Sweet girl, there’s leftovers. I’m really not that hungry anyway. She knows her mother prefers the chicken. Her mother is always testing her. She’s a shop girl now. Dressing mannequins in the front window. She answers the telephone. She wraps the purchases in gift wrap Easter and Christmas. She rings up the purchaseses. She has to be careful because just like her the glass can break at a moment’s notice.
‘Did you know your father was gay?’ She stops eating the dry chicken. Takes a sip of water. This was just another way her mother was testing her. She could have said, ‘please, pass the salt’.
‘Did you know the love of my life was a beautiful gay man?’ Her mother’s voice was shrill now. ‘You were always the good girl. Pity about the meal. The chicken being so dry.’ She put the glass down and swallowed. Tried to find her voice. ‘Don’t talk about dad like that.’
‘Why can’t I talk about him like that? Why, I’m his wife not you. You think I say these things to hurt you. I want to enlighten you about the world. You were so unhappy as a child. You never wondered what had finally come between us in the end? You don’t know anything about the world of love. You’re still a child. You think I don’t know what is in your journals.’ Her mother hissed viciously.
‘You don’t know anything mother. I don’t want to fight with you.’ She pushed her chair back and got up making as if to leave the table.
‘We don’t talk about anything. Yes, you’re right, you’ll see good girls, good daughters always finish lonely. You’re lonely. Anyone can see that from a mile away. I’m lonely too. I need you. I need my daughter. Parents can be abandoned too, you know. Abandoned by their adult children.’
‘You don’t need me. You’ve forgottten that your mother is an onion woman made up of layers. Don’t forget about me.’ She placed her dish in the sink, hearing her mother calling her name from the dining room. She left it untouched. Her hands were shaking. What good is this, she asked herself. Her mother came into the kitchen and put her hands on her shoulders. ‘I’m sorry. Am I forgiven?’
‘Don’t say anything but I need a stiff drink. I need a whisky. Why don’t you have one with me? Live a little. We can have a mother and daughter bonding experience.’ It had been awhile since she had drunk anything. Years, in fact. They had sparkling wine Christmas. Her father had still been around them. Weak, infirm, elderly but still walking. Still doing his exercises.
‘No. I don’t want a drink. I’m going to my room.’
‘Suit yourself, Oh by the way, fix your hair. You’re really lovely when you make an effort. You have to go and fix yourself up again at the salon again. Your roots are starting to show.’
‘I don’t think I’ll go mother. I mean this was all your idea in the first place.’
I only did it to please you, she wanted to add.
‘Of course, you know best mouse.’
It was always mouse. Look at what you’ve become mouse. You’re all wet. Change your clothes before you get a cough.
‘Mouse’ the nickname had somehow stuck. It had begun to rain again. Oceans translating into streams. This was good.
© Abigail George May 2016
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