••• The International Writers Magazine: Life Fiction from Abigail George
Youth is falling. A clever winter dissolve. Light flashes during an afternoon storm and all I can remember is Johannesburg and failing miserably at school.
I wouldn’t have made it as a teacher for children or an academic. I wouldn’t have made it as a tenured professor. I think I would have liked to teach a creative writing workshop.
It’s different when you don’t worship the ground your self walks upon. When your ego wears a shroud, a mask, a costume, and you hide behind it all of your life. I was always a pilgrim longing with a ghost force, a sunset street, a hand with a shadow folded inside of it for other pilgrims. There’s a sound there. Do souls just have language?
We know that adolescence marks your gender in a particular way. When you find yourself at a school dance, bones and wounds cannot be told apart when you’re held close by a boy.
Women are always talking to themselves. I know what they are thinking. They want your ‘death’ if you are young. I am a woman who runs with the wild horses. Who has a dandelion clock of hair. A strong face. I have my fingers on the sun. The English teacher has a daughter. I have none. No tribe to call.
You’re a teacher living in exile from your London. You taught me many things. Of how I could put an end to fairy tales and relationships with just one look. With a cigarette in my hand.
Red are the flowers of the walls of the arteries of my heart (and Wanda’s, and Caroline’s, and Jerusalem’s). What I do to fill the hours, whenever I’m lonely is think about grief.
‘The cancer took her. I don’t want to remember.’ The thing is although my mother, Wanda didn’t want to remember at the hospital, I wanted to remember everything about those years.
The breast cancer took my aunt Jean’s life. All those years I never visited. They’ve all gone grey. The in-laws. I have a few white hairs myself. They say it’s for wisdom. I just feel old. As if I am peering at the exit sign neon lit upside down and I know that something is seriously wrong.
That was the year that I lived in Johannesburg. The year I went to film school. The first time a married man that I worked with kissed me on the lips.
It was the year of my uncle coming to fetch me from the hospital every Friday afternoon. I wanted to remember that his wife Jean was dust but not forgotten. I also didn’t want to see my father old. My father infirm. My father being made a fool of. He knows what I am. I can see this when I look into his face, meet his gaze.
The darkness is in our genes. With me, my case went something like this. My mother dragged me to the psychiatrist who had studied in Vienna. I can’t even remember how old I was. I know what dad is thinking. That I will never marry because of him. Mostly because of my mother. I know it won’t be such a tragedy. More people are getting divorced than ever before.
The sadness is leaving me. Wanda is pouring tea into a chipped mug for the gardener. Outside is the cement garden. The tea is as radiant as the sun. I can still hear my uncle’s voice.
Johannesburg is years away but I remember it as if it was yesterday. As if I was remembering something scientific. Waves breaking against the beach. Clouds gathering.
“You have to pay me to come and fetch you.” My uncle was saying through gritted teeth. “I can’t drive all this way for nothing you see.” My uncle grumbled. I can still hear him drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. “Pay me. Pay up. Tell your father this. That it’s expensive coming to fetch you every Friday afternoon and to bring you back on a Monday morning.”
Even then I was a young woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown and I got it right most of the time in my twenties. Wanda and Caroline were my role models. Two Bible bashing spirit sisters.
There’s a relief that comes with finding direction in life. Liberation. Now I see that Caroline’s wish came after silence.
I imagine that she talks to herself these days. She’s Antigone. Before achievement, after goals, plans, and success first comes her wish. To be better than beloved everyone else. The start to being happy begins with an illustration from marriage. From her parents’ marriage. She believes that conflict in man lies in law and sin. The future glory of woman in her every elaborate pleasantry, silken destruction, the tiniest details in greener sabotage, the softness of her collateral. The softness of her décolletage, her neck, shoulder blades, her legs as she crosses and uncrosses them at the ankles. At the dining room table a child can see many things. Figures in a cloud symphony. Athletes sprinting. A brother tucking into a feast. A daughter spooning gravy onto her plate. They are all strangers to me but not to Caroline for she is the matriarch. Their children seem to be obedient on the surface not rough. Disciplined and tough at the same time. They are Indian.
They don’t look like her son. The daughter has her nose. The children look like her daughter-in-law’s side of the family. She is all out of love, she wants to tell the minister. Caroline doesn’t know why she is thinking this. She feels as if she is a city on fire alert. She feels as if she is a stranger waiting for a train among other strangers waiting for their train to take them home. To their sanctuary. She feels she has to distract herself all the time now. She’s made spaghetti bolognaise and she feels like an Italian grandmother except she’s not Italian, she’s South African. She’s talking to her reflection in the mirror again and it is almost as if she can see a constellation in her eyes and then she speaks as if she was surrounded by an audience but she feels she cannot help but speak. “I didn’t even think to ask if you even liked poetry.” Caroline doesn’t remember how she came to this place. This moment in time. This place. She just knows that she belongs here.
You’re falling. You’re sunlit for another day. Wisdom swallows you up. Silence dances on your fingertips. You son has interesting and sensitive hands. Darkness is found there. It is already in the genes. Darkness is found in the minds. A fragile darkness. Caroline’s family live for a house on Sunday. Their brains are made of Sunday mornings. They find their way to church and afterwards they assemble for meat tea in the church hall. There’s a retreat. A home remedy of restraint that plays itself out between the men and women of the church. The children that gather on the edge. It is all like a neatly arranged document that is sacred and universal at the same time. The autumn pavement brings with it the force of loneliness. Comprehension, misrepresentation, machinery. One of the boys in the Sunday school thinks to himself. Doesn’t know yet he will grow up to be an artist. Let it snow. He thinks to himself. Let it snow flakes.
Let us all watch in wonder at its flux in the physical. In the half light. It has a beauty in day that you cannot walk away from. Caroline knows Sundays. She knows how to dress in her Sunday best. Her hair is relaxed and waxy. She fixes it back with barrettes. She has always worn her hair like this even in high school. She was strong even then but now she is a spiritual person. Her identity more like falling rain these days. There is still ice in her veins. Those fragments have taught her to live and that dying is an art. The day has a withdrawn energy to it as she feeds her grandchildren in the large and spacious kitchen before they all set out together to go to the Baptist church where all the middle class go. The doctors, engineers. Their families. Caroline’s son is an engineer and her daughter-in-law works in a printing shop.
Those who leave an open door behind them are those who walk away from love, Caroline murmurs to herself as she gets into the shower. She doesn’t want to get her hair wet. I have got to get you off my mind. Eternity is lovely. The hereafter is lovely. There’s a fire in me. I can feel it. It is like I am crying over Julian all over again. Julian, my high school sweetheart. Julian who played the guitar and who had a ponytail. Caroline was eating lunch in the kitchen. Her grandchildren were playing in the swimming pool. The dog was barking. Her head was suddenly filled with music. Debussy. She’s thinking of writing the almost spiritual. The autumn weather of milk and honey. Where the lines of the external summer pavement meet the struggle of the internal. I am the queen of hearts but Caroline did not dare to say that out loud because isn’t every mother the queen of hearts, she thought to herself. I am queen of my son’s heart. It felt as if her lungs were filling up with notes and harmonies of la-la-la. A room filled with music.
A harmony that she did not want to let go of. In the dark in the early hours of the morning the house was like a beautiful stranger to her much like her sister had been. A Patricia Highsmith kind of a stranger. The sister who had died of ‘complications’. My suffering began with Wanda. Star my eye to the telescope she’s the ghost of a childhood view, chapters that have come to a ghostly end. In her world, I was a stranger yet her stories were crucial to my development. Wanda and Caroline were important people in my life. When I was a girl I looked up to Caroline. I would tell my aunt all my secrets but as I grew older and didn’t turn into Liesel, my cousin who married and had two daughters and then into Liesel’s sister Mona (Mona in America) with her son and daughter I was left on a heap on the wayside. You were nothing in Caroline’ s world if you were not married and had children. How could you be happy if you did not have ‘a sunny road’.
‘You shock me.’ I wanted to tell all of them to go to hell. The Johannesburg people. ‘You shock me with your unkindness.’ But I never said anything. I just grew more set in my ways and my voice went all quiet.
No more fire in my voice. No more worries, cares, or burdens. Sometimes Caroline would telephone. She would phone to speak to my mother and tolerate me. Of course, I could hear it in her voice.
Hear that she didn’t really want to speak to me. I could hear that in her thin laughter. In the purple sea of her smile. I danced for both Wanda and Caroline but I danced out of their reach and in the bright end their innocence and tenderness simply faded away.
I have been starving for a lifetime. I have been starving for love, lust, desire, need, want. Thirst has been like the flat normal of this world. Once, Caroline’s world was my dream. To teach gifted children.
To have a son. To raise a son. Make a man out of him. Not an unkind man like Jerome later turned out to be. Caroline only had half of the dream. She had to raise her son on her own. Wanda was my mother. Wanda was my flesh and blood.
Caroline too was my flesh and blood but in the end my ‘Zelda Fitzgerald’ behaviour became too much for both of them. Am I okay? Am I alright? I am a dancer towards the light. My father doesn’t speak now, but I sit next to him at the frail aged home.
Of course, I don’t have to think of the Johannesburg people now. I have my father. I have enough room in my heart now to dance for him now. Enough love in my heart for him. Whenever I make coffee in my kitchenette I think of my uncle drumming his fingertips.
How my father’s face fell when I told him only years later of what my uncle had said. I think I wanted to hurt my father. I wanted him to know they weren’t kind people, the Johannesburg folk. I wanted my dad to know they were hungry, flesh, and animal, and electric.
I pat his hand, peel a grapefruit for him, pretend I am not crestfallen. The day is not bitter, filled with regret. It is my heart that is bittersweet. Isn’t joy always bittersweet? I finally think that the sadness is leaving me. For real this time.
© Short fiction by Abigail George – March 2017
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Things I have no more use for
“God took you out of my life for a reason.”
Youth excites me. The youth in men. The youth in women. I have to hold onto the fact that all of life, human life, humanity, flora and fauna, and the lost and found is a happy gift.
Those years after the war it seemed as if everyone was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Doctor van Wyk, even my instinct is innocent. When I write courage is my source. It is hard to believe how far I have come. I have loved every man I have ever met. I have also trusted every woman I have ever met and I have been badly let down by females.
'I loved the daily grind. The business side of it. Yet, I also felt crowded, pressured to be happy because of the heat of the day'.
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