17 May 2010

Missing A Thing of Beauty by Abigail George

I have given up on despising my mother. I do not have enough energy as I used to when I was much younger to take her on. Her bravado, her innuendo, all her vanities and subtleties I leave them well alone. She is still selfless, giving and elegant to the outside world but to me she is cold, composed and emotionally uninvolved in daily matters of the household. Perhaps, I think to myself, I am not what she expected.I have given up on despising my mother. I do not have enough energy as I used to when I was much younger to take her on. Her bravado, her innuendo, all her vanities and subtleties I leave them well alone.

She is still selfless, giving and elegant to the outside world but to me she is cold, composed and emotionally uninvolved in daily matters of the household. Perhaps, I think to myself, I am not what she expected. But because of the work I do now as a caregiver at a Hospice, at the end of a long, uneventful and mostly predictable day we have something to talk about. At last I am able to do something that I wasn’t able to do as a child, as a teenager, an adolescent and a young woman. I draw her out of her shell and she begins to talk with authority. It is even pleasant being in her company like this and I can sit back and imagine that perhaps when she was in high school I could have been her friend. My mother’s whole demeanour changes to one which is accepting of unscrupulous behaviour when my brother Eliot comes to visit. She is kinder and more patient with him. She is more loving towards him than she ever is with me in company. Everything is less of a drama when he comes.

He never brings his wife because she sees me as the lowest of the low. All in a class of my own. I am a working class stooge. His wife is sophisticated - a hedonist. She is beautiful and elegant and her nails resemble the talons of a bird of prey. Her name is Devi and she is an attorney and works downtown in Port Elizabeth. We never see much of their daughters; my mother calls them ‘the girls’ - twins Rooka and Trusha, who are six years old now. It is always ‘how are the girls, Eliot?’

I never seem to hear the end of it. How brilliant they are? What they are learning at school? How they are progressing with their swimming lessons? He usually stays for lunch and we talk and swap character assassinations about the people we work with. My brother works in a bank as a credit risk analyst. His family seem to me to be part of the other world he inhabits when he leaves us. A world in which poker, drinking spirits, clubs, bars and restaurants, dinner parties is seen as the socially acceptable way of life.

The cigarette smoke from his mouth nestles gravely in the air. My brother is slender and handsome. He has deep, dark brown eyes that have made many a girl’s heart melt into euphoria when he was in high school. He is still friends with some of these women. He has always been admired since the time when he was young by everyone he came into contact with.

Today my mother admires his new, top-of-the-line car. It is very posh.

I found words like ‘bilateral symmetry’ and ‘mitochondria’ enticing and irresistible at school not the opposite sex. I was always reading constantly with a nose in a book when I was growing up. Sometimes it seems as if little has changed between the gap of my youth and my young adult life. I was still quiet and shy.

“I wish you would stop hiding in yesterday.” My mother would drawl complacently. “Yesterday is gone and the sooner you come to terms with that the better. Look at me. Look at what I am capable of doing at my age. You’ll be so much healthier. Your outlook on life will be so much more positive.

Why don’t you go out and find people of your own age to engage with. Interact with people who share the same ideas as you. Mark my words you’ll start to have fun and enjoy life. You always sound depressed and stressed out about something. You are always so negative. The trouble with you is that you think the world owes you something.”

It irritated me more than anything to have her lecture me at thirty but I said nothing. As children, my brother and I had learnt to deal with our mother as little as possible. She just wasn’t worth the trouble bothering her about our school assignments or packed lunches or supper. I am still a very careful, very efficient person but I would not say I am beyond caring.

In the mean time the man I had been caring for - Harry Mahola - was brilliant but his family had abandoned him. His wife had seen him as weak and his children as a dilettante. His children saw him as playing at being a grown up and a family man. He was the parent who always made a joke out of a family crisis or the prankster and his wife was the disciplinarian.

So eventually his wife packed her bags, divorced him and moved to another country with their young children.

He had pancreatic cancer. It was the reason why he had come to be in the Hospice. He had nowhere else to go to die. He had been a writer once upon a time ago and had written important books that were well received by reviewers but sold poorly. He didn’t write anymore because he felt rejected by his contemporaries and he didn’t feel inspired anymore to write about the things that had happened to him personally in the past. It just made him feel sad and frustrated that there was nothing he could do to change the past history and legacy of Apartheid, racism and prejudice. He himself was poor - he had made next to nothing out of royalties for the books he had written - and time and time again this came up in the discussions we would have when we played rummy or scrabble or chess or when we chatted briefly during the day.

“What did you do?” I asked him lightly.

“I used to write stories.”


“Yes, sometimes poetry as well. But mostly stories about the struggle of the dispossessed.”

At one time he had dreams inside his head of wanting to be an actor in Hollywood films instead he fled the country soon after the Group Areas Act was enforced and lived in exile in Botswana and Tanzania.

One day I came into the room and he was sitting up right in the bed.
“Is anything the matter?” I asked him.

“I have a son and a daughter but I do not have contact with them. My ex-wife is a doctor and she lives in Canada. I have no family here but this is still my home. Have you read Bessie Head’s Maru? It is quite unlike any other book I have ever read.” He glanced at me quickly to see if I was listening. “I hope you don’t get tired or bored listening to the ramblings of an old man.”

I smiled. We became firm friends after that. It was very simple. We were two like-minded individuals.

Harry said later that on some days he just felt sick of feeling sick and tired. When the pain came - as it often did later on in those moments we shared - he imagined that he was floating on air without a precipice in sight. He called it ‘mind over the physical pain’ of his body. The pills I gave him made him feel woozy and light-headed.

In the hospice there are many ancient lives. Personalities are reborn to more assertive and less aggressive memories. A gentler identity unfolds. My identity became marked each day by the unmistakeable origins of love for the in-patients of this place.

“You do realise of course that the tone of your voice changes when you speak about him. Are you in love with him?”

I stared at my mother coldly before I answered her.

“Why do you have to be so cruel and insensitive?”

“I only have your best interest at heart, silly girl. What if this man, who is not only sick and elderly, thinks that this coloured girl is in love with him? All hell will break loose with your superiors and then where will you be left when you cannot get a proper recommendation. What will happen to your squeaky clean reputation that you are so proud of.”

“He is frail. He is dying.”

“Men and women can never truly be friends. Listen to me. You can do much better than that, Lana. If it’s a friendship you want, join Bible study or the choir at the church. I’ve been after you for years to go to the Anglican church and mix with people you own age and here you go and get involved with someone who isn’t even rich, who hasn’t got a proper career even and on top of all that he just another blerrie darkie, nogal.”

I keep waiting for her to turn around and see it from my point of view. I keep waiting for my mother to say, “Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I’m to blame.” Because for so long in this environment that I’ve been living in I’ve sustained the belief that I am unlovable, no unlikeable. He found my daily bulletins about celebrities, trivia and my anecdotes about this one and that one interesting and I believed in some way it motivated him as well to think that his life still had the semblance of humanity.

He encouraged me to read more African writers. “Don’t be scared, or put off. Jump right in.” He gave me names that no matter how hard I tried to pronounce, I could not. He was patient, kind and endured my questioning like a drill sergeant. When he was tired, I went in search of other terminally ill patients and read to them or helped them write letters to their grandchildren.

He was always encouraging me to read books by some of the most innovative minds of my generation. He suggested I read writers whose books had won international awards and praise from critics across the board internationally. Once I remembered he had suggested I read the ‘The famished road’ by the celebrated Nigerian writer Ben Okri that won an important British literary award - the Booker prize.

“Tell me about your parents.”

“My mother is Afrikaans-speaking and she comes from Ladysmith originally but then her family moved to Johannesburg and her father became a police man. After that he worked in a factory.”

You were so happy and playful. You couldn’t stop laughing and because you were laughing I had to laugh too.

“Do you look like her, your mother, I mean?”

“I don’t know. I think I look more like my father because I have much more of his personality and character in me moulded together.”

“Such big words. Your father then is serious, he has a highly developed sense of humour and he is of the African intelligentsia persuasion.”

“Too many compliments and I am afraid that I am not deserving of any.”

“In my experience and I am forty-nine – of course infinitely wiser than you.”

“Of course.” I said, playing along and beginning to relax and enjoy this game immensely.

“People who lack knowledge will feel they are not deserving, not worthy and where there is no knowledge, people are destroyed. Their very livelihood and this is why I am telling you this. I know you will listen to me. You are a smart girl.” His eyes sparkled.

“You are a still a girl. So, so young. You’ve given up on life so quickly, in a heartbeat. You haven’t even deduced whether or not there is a quickening pulse. Is there life there? Don’t you think I’ve watched you all these days that you’ve been able to take care of me. The cigarettes you light one after the other when you go on a break.”

He had hit a nerve and I hated being judged.

“Let me finish before you go.” I had come into his room to fetch the tray upon which his lunch had been laid served.

“You have your whole future ahead of you and I know what your heart truly desires to do but you have been afraid to commit to it. One word. Write. You are a born writer if ever I saw one. The stories you regaled me with. I knew you had serious talent from the very first time we spoke.”

It could have been the ranting of someone who had seen the light but I never stopped to wonder why he had spoken to me with such vibrancy and energy – more so than I had ever seen him with before.

The day you died I was at your bedside. Your forehead felt ancient and cool to the touch. I stayed until the coroner came and they lifted your body up off the bed onto a stretcher with speedy efficiency. You said I could have your copies of Hemingway’s ‘A moveable feast’, Salinger’s ‘A catcher in the rye’, Arthur Nortje’s poetry anthology ‘Roots’,

I timed the miraculous cause and effect of the birth of our friendship with the disease.

“Most of us don’t tend to become as emotionally involved with our patients, as you did. But you’ll learn. Towards the end, it gets easier. Letting go is just a formality, there’s still the matter of denial, bereavement, grieving. Death is a process that gives way to yet a new and uninformed rebirth.” The matron leaned in towards her. “It changes something in here,” she pointed towards her heart, “and here.” The matron pointed towards her head. The last conversation we had was the day before you slipped away and lost consciousness.

After his death I tried to investigate the details of our relationship for the time I had known him. Later, much later after I discovered his books in nooks, in crannies, in second-hand bookshops, I was in awe of him. Now not only as a man but as a poet. His prowess with the pen superseded his gruff, arrogant manner. His protagonists were always aloof war heroes. They were always stunned by the shock and trauma of the horror and brutality of war or they played the aloof hero who defies estrangement and is welcomed with open arms into the inner circle of his family once again at a celebratory homecoming. The women in his books were often derided and castigated for making mistakes that cost them dearly. The characters in his books that were female did not think they were born only to be homemakers and lovers. Instead they were also tormented by mental illness or miscarriages, infertility, promiscuity, alcoholism and every disease, illness or generally every sickness known to man.

“Yes, by all means write.” my mother said.

“Where will you write? The problem is the space, you see. Will you have enough space?”

“I will write in my bedroom on my old typewriter and later I can invest in a computer when I need it.”

Finally she was happy at the prospect of change and at the appeal of progress in my life. I was so happy I could have kissed her but she would have been embarrassed.

“It will be a nice hobby. You’ll grow. You can do research at the library and you’ll go out more. I can help you with this. This will be so good for you.”

I realised there were finally endless possibilities that added meaning to life. There are two sides to every situation: grasping at a life line which will do you the world of good or gasping for air, coming up for air after realising the sea of life will not swallow you whole.

“What kind of writer are you going to be?”

My mother was always getting ahead of herself. But she was usually right. I didn’t see research as boredom and routine.

“I’m going to right about the struggle of the dispossessed.”

“What? I didn’t hear you?”

“I’m going to write about Africa.”

“That’s a start.”

I wait for her to say, “No matter what you decide to do, I’ll still be proud of you, no matter what.” But I can hear her walking away from me, down the passage, her interest that spurned her on before, or sparked her interest is gone. She puts the kettle on and feeds the cat.

I imagine Harry is still here.

Harry did I ever tell you about my father? About how much you remind me of him? He was a writer too and an activist in a subversive organisation called the Yu Chi Chan Club in the armed struggle. You remind me of his strength, his decency and his unrelenting resilience in the face of the adversity and injustice of Apartheid and the Group Areas Act.

Missing A Thing of Beauty was written by Abigail George.

Copyright © Abigail George 2010.

I am a writer of short stories, articles, personal essays, a memoirist, diarist, grant writer and poet who was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa in 1979. I studied film and television production for a short while at Newtown Film and Television School in Newtown, Johannesburg, South Africa which was followed by brief stints as a trainee at a production house, studying Business Administration through correspondence, Bible School at Word of Faith Christian Centre in Port Elizabeth, South Africa and studying creative writing through the Leisure Study Group’s Writing School via correspondence again.

I have been published widely in print and online in journals and magazines in South Africa namely Litnet and on Litnet’s Blog, Sun Belly Press, Botsotso, Carapace, New Contrast, Kotaz, Timbila, Echoes Literary Journal, Upbeat and Tribute and online in Africa in South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Turkey and Zimbabwe and internationally in the United States, England, Finland and Canada.

I have received two grants from the National Arts Council in Johannesburg. In 2005 for a poetry anthology entitled, Africa, where art thou? and again in 2008 for manuscript development for a collection of short stories entitled, The Origins of Smoke and Mirrors. In 2010 I was published in the following anthologies; Poems for Haiti (Published by Poets Printery), Animal Antics, Soulfully Seeking (Published by the Poetry Institute of Africa) and the forthcoming African Roar 2011.


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