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The shop assistant's daughter The shop assistant's daughter
by Abigail George
2017-03-08 09:07:57
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You don’t know my situation although I wish you did. It’s too late to offer up any sound explanations through gritted teeth and clenched fists with a heavy heart. The field of the sun is beautiful when translated. Its world giving. A formidable journey into morning.

It feels as if there’s a fever the size of the Atlantic inside of me. A burning sensation like my father’s hand felt like in his one found white glove on his wedding day. Ian, you’re faultless when you’re disguised.

suns01_400It feels as if a thousand years have passed but it has only been a few hours since we broke up on the telephone. There are ripples of emptiness. Ian, you’re another ghost in this city. Your journey is out of focus. Flowers are like mothers. Language is like the fear of swimming for your life.

Your touch is blue. So is the business of distance from the sky, to you, to the ground. Ian, you held winter in your hands. The dark frightened me. I’m unhappy. I’m lonely. I’m floating on my back in the local swimming pool. Joyce, my sister is not lonely.

Joyce is as cold as a river in winter. During weekdays, the house is kept busy by sighing. Its inhabitants listening to music. They watch television, gathering anticipation for an evening meal.

I think of Ian with nostalgia. The dream of him (the strong, masculine introvert). I know he cares nothing for me. Doesn’t love me. Doesn’t think of me while he still keeps me up nights. The world here in Johannesburg is wonderful.

I swallow branches (the outside in), the sun’s conceit, Hollywood fingers, black and white films, contact lenses that change my eyes from golden-brown to sea-green. In another instant I am home.

Joyce chatters away as if she is talking to herself, while I pretend to watch my soap. I sleep as if I know exactly what is good for me. The world here is wonderful. The weather is wonderful.

People still appear at weddings standing about with the confetti in their hair. Ian your face, older, is still fine. I imagine now that perhaps his voice changes in the summer months. His words seem fewer and far between.

I know the truth and the revolution that he brings with him. The roads that he has travelled on. He has turned his sadness into an evasion. I buried him alongside clouds, a sleeping couple like an island behind the dunes.

I am ready to greet the dawn’s yellow, the sunrise, and the blue horizon. I am a tourist on a beach. I am a tourist on an island. I am a tourist rising from my bed, living in a hotel room, getting ready for life.

You, Ian, move like molten lava in this world. I’m delicate. Fragile living has done me the world of good in the thickening of the night’s middle but even in the departure of the dark I am able to see you.

Ian’s identity is as ancient as the branches of an oak. Tales of acorn and unicorn. Themes of mood disorder and uncertain circumstance. The texture of a swimming shorts made out of viscose material and bare knees.

You’re the atmosphere found at the sea, glare, grace, the ghost of tears that haunt like the rain does. Sunlight as white as bone. How can one man and his American life inspire and indulge the imagination and creativity of a poet?

His identity is an avenue up a cold street. A landscape embroiled in Lucky Strike cigarettes, fertility, his countrymen’s shamanic wisdom, a neurotic panorama. Portraits of silver cutlery, glass made out of crystal, expensive crockery made in China.

This vessel must adapt to the current, to reading channels of emptiness in the eyes of others, to reading hands. The water’s swell roars in my ears. All I see in front of me is the hard and calculating faces of attractive females in the workplace. All I can think to myself is this.

How does God manage the rain clouds as they gather, the fish in the sea, shark teeth, a woman’s pair of shoes, coat, hat, her preparation of tea, how does God manage the mud found on a man’s boots?

Ian’s hair is cut short at the perfect sides of his head. Under my trusting shroud of the affair of winter I find that beneath each session with my therapist lies the inner music of sadness.

Beneath that, tension and even further beneath that the inner muscle of rage that carries through itself the meaningless bleak outlines of the city skyline, smoke, mist, fogged up windows, the shine on a pane.

I don’t have anything in common with the living. Ian has given up on this clear image of me. His newspaper dashed to the ground. The only things that were free in those days were the little birds.

What is our language? Language is this. It must be translated. It must be spread across countries from Europe to Africa just like the smell of frangipani blossoms and jasmine in my mother’s spring garden, yesterday, today and tomorrow meeting present and future at the same time.

Ex-high school girls turned into wives, lovers and mothers, present and future. Shame and stigma present and future. Obstacles when I was an adolescent seemed few. The air fresh and cool and still seems to fill the fibre of my being today.

In Johannesburg, it was cars and traffic, not birdsong that greeted me every morning with each sunrise. I worked as an unpaid intern at a television production house when I was twenty.

Making photocopies, telephone calls, coffee and running errands for some of the most important people working in media in Johannesburg. 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.

There was no wind song that was apparent. No afterlife of the pouring rain. No dewy grass just as cool to the touch as the air. No birdsong scratching at the surface. I missed the branches of the trees of my hometown.

The rhythmic dancing of life. I finally knew what ‘the world so cold’ so meant. A world that ‘offered me no warmth’. Ian, you’re you. I am the innocent. You were the tenderness. I was the naïve one in the relationship.

In my dreams, repeatedly I find myself in the city by the sea covered with bright lights. This is what I know of the world. Separation anxiety. His green eyes (fleck framed by dark black hair). I’m occupied with thoughts of belonging. Longing to find myself in this world.

I want to place the universe next to the keys in my pocket made of cold winter. Stars slept while I searched for the seat of mum’s soul. The location of gravity. Autumn's blood knot. Ruffians like the big, bad wolf in fairy tales belonging to a childhood insomnia.

Eyes large with terror afraid of the dark night I searched for a woman called ‘mummy’ but instead found monsters under the bed. In the closet. It is found below. The same place where volcanic rock resides undisturbed for millions of years. Underground.

A mother’s love is a bit like finding buried treasure. I remember the haunting fragments of my speechless reflection. My winter expression. My grandfathers came out of the soil. Each could move mountains. Mountains would tremble when they spoke against them.

They could touch that dead world found between heaven and hell. Noble men. They were stuff made of hope and champions. Common sense doesn’t mean that you’re soft.

They both knew of the despair of war and carried the bearings of truth in their faces until they were old men. Their children grew up in front of them choosing obedience and discipline. Trusting those images. The image of home. ‘Home’ in other words sanctuary.

When I turned forty Ian would become ‘home’ too. Studying the passage of a difficult relationship means to look at others in society. Humans in their environment. Writing about people means I get to dissect them. Pull them apart at the seams.

Live with them for a short while, love them, and then leave them. There are two kinds of girls in this world. The 'Madonna' and the 'Mother Teresa of Calcutta'. The instant was swept away just as quickly as it had come upon me. The road in the distance was magnificent.

The heatwave in summer electric just like she, Jenny, my best friend in high school (and my mother) was. Jenny brought the sea to me. Rain gathered overhead. The heavens opened her floodgates.

Jenny’s fingers tap out another language on the piano. She told me once of how she had nearly drowned as a girl in a hotel swimming pool. Her mother brushed her blonde hair as thick as honey as I sat next to her. She’s all mouth and perfumed hair. Fragility. Her mouth was filled with French verbs. At the beach her cousins were hard on me. I was half in love with her. I wanted to be her. Look like her. Her memory is as faint as a drum roll now.

She doesn’t know me anymore. Jenny’s become a stranger waiting for her train at the station, the future of seawater towards immortality, dust singing of sick birds. My sister too was the former and I, the latter.

The night is spiritual. The country of beauties is a haunted land filled with the proverbial thirst. The measures of longing. Of dying to belong to feast and the imperative. Every broken family is filled with cracks in their system.

Their lungs overflowing with flame like a fireplace in a mansion. I don’t know whether this shoreline will still be here in a decade. I’m thinking of the wind. Feasting my eyes on gulls. It’s beautiful out here.

The singing geography of here reminds me of Alice in her wonderland. A word like ‘emphasis’. Growing up in Port Elizabeth there were always two Vincents in my life. One a cousin, the other a painter who died penniless but whose art is now worth millions.

Vincent was the other man’s ‘son’. We adopted him. I loved him like no other. My father was the other man. The other man was dominated by melancholy. Onwards, I found my father there in letters, a diary from his London University days.

He took long naps while writing up his assignments about autism. I found my father in his grandson’s sandpit. I spoke to him collect on the telephone when I phoned home from the Salvation Army in Johannesburg.

I remember speaking to him about the last white president of South Africa. Our voices merged as one. The loudness like freight trains in the dark going fast-fast-fast-fast. It was only later, nearing forty that I understood what my father was trying to teach me.

If you want love, have a need for it, or desire, then begin to have a love affair with yourself first. Understand this that before you can love anyone else, worship anyone, possess them, you have to take yourself, your reflection in the bathroom mirror and like everything about yourself, from the top of your head to the bottom of your soul.

The things that are important to remember are that there are manuals out there for everything. You only have to look for it and you will find it. There were men who wanted to dominate me.

Men who wanted to love me. When I looked at a man, a new world was born for me. There would be a gaze, a meeting of the eyes. Nothing would be said. Everything would be said. There would be an arrival of tenderness.

A show and tell of it and that would be enough for me. You will still find in this day and age that the physical, the body in half-light in the morning would be enough for a girl new to the city.

A man can take and take repeatedly. What can a girl offer but her instinct for life, her intellectual capacity for love, she will in return give everything she can simply to be adored, or to be a trophy girlfriend, trophy wife. In retrospect, a girl only truly blossoms when she is touched for the first time.

When she makes love. When a man tells her for the first time that he is in love with her. It is far easier to say, ‘Be my girlfriend’, than ‘be my wife’. Men can say anything to the object of their affection with fire in their loins.

If a woman wants to be a woman in a man’s world she has to pay a price. Her femininity goes away. First, she has to wear the ‘suit’. She has to wear the ‘pants’. She has to be ‘tall’. Yes, her femininity goes.

There will be a symbolic cut between what reality is and what is not real. She will surround herself with an entourage of men because only men can understand her situation. Only men will appear trustworthy to her on the surface.

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 anything 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. Your 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 and prayer. 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 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 her son 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.

 

 ***********************************************************************
Abigail George has two books in the Ovi Bookshelves,
"All about my mother" & "Brother Wolf and Sister Wren"
Download them, NOW for FREE HERE!

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