18 July 2010

Ingrid's Ghost by Abigail George

She is a ghost of her former self, but she is still in the land of the living, a land that time forgot, a time of angels, a time of traumatic circumstances. She is a tragic beauty in a state of personal turmoil and crisis. There is no time like the future to seal my fate, she thinks with growing uncertainty. Her unquiet spirit began to move across the timeline of her unhappy adult life and childhood with a razor sharp edge.

She watched her former self smoking cigarette after cigarette each one dashed into the ashtray, and remembered the unbearable nervousness of that night. She feels exposed, she paces up and down, but she still attaches no serious damage or blame to her last love affair. She was gentle and loving with Simone, her daughter today. Simone is a very sweet and loveable child. She was blonde, looked more like her father than Ingrid. She was beautiful and she spoke in a soft voice while she followed her mother around the house.

Ghosts do not only come at night. During that turmoil in South Africa during Apartheid they came unseen during the heat of the day, during banning orders, detention, torture, the sub-conscious, student uprising and solitary confinement. Ghosts can also be seen as a link to the telepathic. A connection that is tenuous and invisible, that renders heartache. They do not appear as glowing apparitions in diaphanous white sheets. They come to us in dreams of what our life could be like. They give a meaning and a purpose, untold gifts to the loved ones we leave behind. What ghosts do best is tell stories, what they are best at is confessions.

In Paris, a trip she took paid for with the money she won in a writing competition she was already a writer in exile — cursed, perturbed and a voyeur who had high-maintenance taste. She is still unclear about what she is going to do tonight. She felt ambivalent. Glass beads of perspiration lay across her forehead. Her spirit stood close by watching what she was going to do next knowing full well the consequences of her actions but lacking the will to control what would happen.

Her spirit remembered that night her resolve unravelled in the flat. Her beauty meant nothing to her. She was not conceited. What had it brought her but ill-fated relationships, rejection, pain and suffering? Nothing dulled or sated her desire for love, for life, for a hot and heavy intellectual debate, which her voice was the centre of. In retrospect, living in Apartheid had made her begin to doubt what she was living for, what her writing, the words of her poems stood for.

She wanted to be taken seriously as a woman, but more importantly, as a writer. She wanted to be the voice of a new generation that knew no boundaries and no limitations, which had the power to disseminate knowledge through books, reading, the reciting of poetry. She knew she was a non-conformist with a relevant and unique voice. She knew this was dangerous in the times she was living in.

Spirits knew no boundaries over the past affairs and histories of the bodies they inhabited. They could go where they liked and have an opinion on what they disliked or where indifferent to. They could seek out the mysteries of life and illuminate truths about the lives they led before they returned to eternity or to a paradise in heaven or to hell. In eternity they were locked in a constant battle where Ingrid’s ghost now found itself whether or not to return to their human body before death or to linger in the no-man’s-land caught between either heaven or hell.

The group of writers that she had befriended were dangerously in hate with a patriarchal system. They were known as the ‘Sestigers’. It was the sixties and they were a Bohemian group of poets, artists and writers who fought against the beliefs and principles of a racially divided country that was in chaos and upheaval. She wished she could stop being so insecure and being amongst so many people who were likeminded and made her step out of her shell. The world around them, the country that they lived in seemed crazy, deranged and it distracted them from the seemingly normal lives they lived. They all seemed momentarily sidetracked from it only drawing attention to it in their writing.

The ghost carried the mirror image of Ingrid’s sadness and unhealed internal wounds, emotional scarring and the heartbreak battles she went through daily. She had not let go of the strange, disturbing dreams she had at night. There were often times when Ingrid’s tiredness, her ranting and her internal affairs of her heart got the better of her. It tore her optimism and motivation apart. The ghost was moved by Ingrid’s reflection in the water. She sensed there was a feeling there of a little girl being lost. Ingrid had often wondered what happened after you died especially when she was feeling melancholic.

The essence of her identity was fragmented and complicated. Piece by piece pushed her, destroyed her faith in love, passed her to a fate worse than death and could not guarantee security in her chosen career. Later the powerful pain and rejection she felt propelled her to write about her life experiences. She hated her loneliness, feelings of emptiness and of defeat, her feelings of despair and desperation.

The ghost knew that there is always bottled up melancholy in the abstract drawings of people and from mild observations made in the congested streets, traffic and streams of people. The ghost knew just how happy she could be but it already was too late.

The ghost also knew that love will change you in an indescribable way — it will make strong hearts weak, render the intellectual speechless, comedians will vanish and be replaced by philosophers; the funny will be replaced by philosophy and everything that was laughable before is serious and stimulating. The challenges of the human condition become painfully obvious. Death is the ultimate sacrifice, invisible and mysterious.

Ingrid made a decision for herself that was useless. She was distracted by her unquiet spirit.

There is no earthly justification for what she did — removing the very substance of her gift, her genius from this world, by taking her own life, by drowning herself in the sea. As they pulled the limp body from the ocean, the subject in death mirrored life. There was a chill in her embrace. Her fingers were numb. She was haunting, pale and beautiful, lacking tenderness. Her cheeks were wet as if from tears. Her mouth is full.

Ghosts try and press competence into the expanse of the mind of their human body. They live in another world. A world in which they are brave, committed expert time travellers. They guide mediums, healers, readers, human beings to a place where they longer weep with heavy hearts. They take you to a place where you can fly. They take you to a place where you can be naked and unembarrassed.

Her former-self’s lips are cool, as if she has drunk her fill. Her appetite is sated. She sleeps to dream, she does not speak and there is no lapsed recovery from the multiple meanings of words. There will no longer be the willing prerogative of an insomniac to stay up the whole night and blot out the stain of her sins by writing down her dreams, goals and decisions. What did see before her in her daily thoughts? Who was she born to be, she often wondered when she was alone, sadness pressing in on her from all sides, as her lover slept beside her.

Ghosts like looking at pictures especially portraits of human beings through smoke and mirrors. Here they have the absolute power. They are miracle-workers when you come to know them with the ability to make you forget those traces of painful girlhood, a youth filled with sore humiliations.

She often lay on her bed staring up at the ceiling, her sense of self-worth and self-pity circling questions in her wandering mind. Who could she blame now for this hurt, this humiliation that followed an argument with her lover at the time? Being known as this one’s goddess or that one’s muse delighted and amused her at varying times. She knew she broke all the rules. She knew she made mistakes that she harboured and kept close to her heart and would not let go. She knew she made herself suffer so, deliberately.

It was too late for her to realise that she already had the world at her feet. Instead she made the world cry.

Human beings do not have to be afraid of ghosts. They are not the manifestations of what we fear the most in the world as we have grown up to believe. They are just our former selves making their way through eternity trying to go back and correct their mistakes with a passion.

The male policemen's hair was windswept. They talked amongst themselves.
The breeze was salty, the morning tide came in, the breakers crashed against the rocks, the foam raced towards the shore, birds circling overhead perched on rocks and altered states, tension, were trapped in a war of nerves of the people who were present at the beach that day. They stood in a union of solidarity. Everyone was left to their own reflections staring up at the blue dissolve of the sky.

Her eyes stared into the pale, blue sky. The beginning of the day was like her work, imaginative. It gave recognition to curious incidents in the still, mournful air of the morning. It concerned itself with the decline of evil and the harmful beginnings of the harvest of desolation.

The shadow of a ghost of a haunting memory refused to disappear into a hazy reverie. The poet, Ingrid Jonker, is dead. Her face has an unsmiling seriousness on it. Even in death she is angelic. Her demeanour never giving way to the trouble or unfounded insecurity that lay underneath. She is still beautiful, morose like a needy, sullen child who is used to getting his or her own way.

She is authentic, a true original, a unique. But she will never know this in her own lifetime. Her life when held up to scrutiny in death will revere it.

She knew what the imagination was capable of, the loneliness of the heart and when it was ready to surrender to a temporary escape into a romance.

Her innocence and vulnerability was one that mirrored those of women ahead of the times they were born into, women who were visionaries, leaders, and had to endure great humiliation from powerful men, from a traditional public realm. Women like Joan of Arc, Saartjie Baartman, Susan Sontag, Princess Diana, Sylvia Plath and Marilyn Monroe.

She is barefoot in her flat. Her hair is dark, wild and free and falls across her face. Yet in her eyes there is a declaration of having been to hell and back again. There has been a radical change in her behaviour since she came back from Paris that hasn't escaped her but she doesn't speak of her experiences there, of the lingering sadness that torments her. The 'unhappiness' does not have a name yet, but soon the world will know and there is nothing she can do to protect her daughter from it.

Fate is like a drowned thing, an empty shell reserved for the sound of silence invoking the sound of the ocean. She has decided she is a poor activist, wife, mother, woman and lover. Simone, her daughter, wants to make her smile but she is tired of playing games.

Nonetheless she plays along, pretends to catch the joke, and today, when the journalist came for the interview, there was a glimmer of a smile on her face when her picture was taken.

The picture of her as the famous, prize-winning poet — the female voice of her generation — was a small consolation to her. Without her father's love she felt lost. Fame meant little or nothing to her and the turning point came now, this night. How different would things be in the morning for people that she had been estranged from for years, she wondered quietly to herself?

How many times did she have to redirect her focus when tears blurred her vision when she cried, when she was working? How do you survive a blessed and cursed childhood? What made her laugh, this sensitive, delicate woman? Who made her smile?

The elementary particles of light became diffused on her face. It was translucent, her face dreamy and lashes damp. The farm where she grew up with her grandparents and her mother and sister filled her with warmth comforted her in the dark times when she searched for beauty and escape. She was happy then when nothing could drag her away from what she found small joys in like the animals or wild-flowers or her mother or grandmother in the kitchen.

There is a distracting air near the incident now as they wait for the coroner. Simone woke up in the stillness of the flat and went in search of her mother. She searched the rooms one by one and found that they were empty.

Where does the story begin? Perhaps with a car is hurtling down the road past everything a young Ingrid knows and loves. This is the world of a child, a babyish language, tea parties in the shade with her sister, barefoot on the sandy beach searching for beautiful feathers, smooth pebbles and colorful shells. Now history has turned the page. Their father has come to fetch them to live with him and his family. It is his third wife and they have their own children. The years spent year, facing shame, rejection and isolation will push them further apart. Their idyllic childhood is over forever. As the car moves forward, the shiny wheels turning around and around without an end in sight like this trip they are being dragged to a new future, further and further away from their old haunts. As they turn the corner they will be a stone's throw from where they watched the fishing boats at sea.

Ingrid glances across at her sister on the back-seat. Her eyes are bright, but she does not look out at the world out of the window. Ingrid's shoulders are hunched over as she stares out of the window and looks at the sea of her childhood. She doesn't know it yet, but she will never see it again. Yet she knows with a certainty it will always be there. Other people will fall in love with the sea, the choppy, crashing waves against the shoreline at the break of day and at sunset, the warm undercurrents, slimy seaweed underfoot, stars above the dunes at night it like she has, easily.

Her father is very serious but he doesn't scare her. Ingrid doesn't scare easily.
She has already fallen in love with his spectacles, his shoes and the black suit he is wearing. He took his hat off in her grandmother's house. Ingrid wanted to take it from him and hold it in her hands. It smells like an elegant stick of liquorice. It smells dark and spicy. It smells like Old Spice or soap-on-a-rope. She had never seen anything quite like it before. He does not say a word to her. He ignores Ingrid and her sister completely. He looks like a brown grizzly bear that she saw in pictures in her school textbook with his broad shoulders and thick arms. Ingrid would like him to pick her up and hold her.

She wants him to take her hand in his and say in his gruff manner, What are the names of your dolls? What do you like to read? Do you miss your mother? But he says nothing and bundles them into the car. In her head Ingrid has an imaginary conversation with her father. He is silent. He stares ahead into the blue distance. Why didn't you come to see us before? Why did you wait so long? Ingrid has many conversations like this inside her head. He plays funny games. Sometimes he ignores her completely when she speaks to him and just nods his head or answers gruffly with an aloof and wan expression on his face. Sometimes he stares at the wall and pretends she didn’t say anything at all.

It makes her feel invisible, hurts her feelings, makes her feel small, feeble and like an orphan, like she is not wanted here. It makes her want to cry but she holds back that feeling and keeps it for when she is alone in her bed at night. When she can sob into her pillow and wipe the wetness across her face and remember fond memories of her mother’s kisses and hugs.

There were so many things I wanted to show you Daddy. Sometimes when we have tea parties we set a place for you. I don't know how you like your tea, with milk or without, with sugar or without, with lemon or without. I had a birthday this year. I'm a year older. I missed you. Daddy, daddy, are you listening? I love you. I always loved you. I thought you just forgot about me, about Anna, but one day I believed you'd come back to fetch us and we'd be a family again. But the important thing is that you're here now. My wish came true.

Ingrid tried to make sense of things, of this novel family and tried to make the best of it. She had the best intentions but failed miserably as a child and gloriously as an adult as her career as a poet began to take off and began to take shape. There are so many dreams that a human being dreams of in one lifetime. There are too many to recall. At night the sub-conscious is bewitching, alluring and illuminates the truths that we are so afraid to face daily. It cracks open the lid of the lies we feed ourselves greedily to make the childhood pain and fear go away. It fascinates our ego. It mesmerises us. It turns our madness and depression upside down.

Mr. Jonker begins to perspire. He takes out a beautifully starched handkerchief and wipes his brow. He is a man of few words. How does the world look through spectacles, Ingrid wonders. She leans back into the leather seat's interior. His cheeks are puffy like he is chewing sticky sweets. Ingrid is very still. Her sister's eyes are no longer bright but watery. Her life as she knew it is disappearing before her eyes. She kicked her foot against the seat as she straightened up. Her eyes were fixed on the beach, the silky mouths of the dunes that were like open purses and the quivering branches of the trees in the wind. Her childhood was over. She would only realise who she was born to be the night she stepped into the sea at Three Anchor Bay.

On that terrible night there was no quick magical thinking, the blank screen inside her mind that could so quickly be filled with words that could explain the disturbing and unnatural lives of the people who lived in a prejudiced society in South Africa. There was no pill that she could take to make her suffering go away.

No therapy. No big talk. No small support group to offer motivation and comfort. No self-help book, no life-coach, no stress-free vacation, no emotional stable relationship. She couldn’t make any sense of what was happening inside her brain. Nothing could please her.

There was no wine that could sate her thirst for the sadness she felt that night. Her gift was wasting away before the eyes of the world. It was the end of her world. It was the end of her gift of giving and her tremendous talent and potential.

Her sister started crying on the back-seat of the car. Ingrid hugs her and begins to stroke her hair, saying comforting things in her ear, whispering to her so she would not disturb her father. Now she was close to tears herself. She did not know this stranger, the even stranger place where they were going. She wondered how she would cope. Would he permit her to write her stories and poetry and let the sisters have their barefoot tea parties in the garden in the shade or would they be outsiders?

Mr. Jonker was not a man moved easily by tears. Ingrid cannot translate what she is feeling into words yet. She is lost in space. She is already in love with words. Words in books, novels, words on the tip of her tongue, in her dreams, that float on air, driven and determined in gossip and eavesdropping on them in passing conversations between her grandparents when they were still alive and her mother.

This is where it began, Ingrid Jonker said to herself in a flat in Sea Point thirty-one years later. This melancholy state of affairs was an accident waiting to happen. She was cursed.

Through shame, spite, the government's own brand of vitriolic censorship, a father and daughter remained estranged for decades. Did Ingrid know that she had more in common with her father than she realised. They had the same personality and the same aggressive style of debate. They stuck to their principles and would not let go. They both believed that what they were doing was right. She was mixing with Blacks and Coloureds, writing books that would be banned, talking about politics like an activist and he, her father was censoring, banning books that were against the government.

Neither of them was apolitical. She was her father's daughter. How could he reject her, how could she undermine him? They were both writers. Could they not see how alike they were? How could this escape both of them? When she was little her life had almost seemed like a dream. Now consorting with banned writers, Black artists, philosophers, poets, writers, activists and debating, remonstrating, taking their side against Apartheid, the Group Areas Act, testing racial boundaries and sweeping all limitations and the terrible burden that lay behind racialism in the sixties.

It seemed like it was another dream. So was spending her days on Clifton beach, lying on the sand, slender, tanned, in her white bikini and her nights with a new lover. The nightmare of a failed marriage left behind her. She dreamed other dreams when she was sad. She believed failed relationships could save her. Her work being published could make her a better writer. She believed when she failed at something she could rise above those circumstances and make something better come out of it.

She realised as a child that it was very hard to fall in love with something and give yourself over to it completely. She communed with nature as a child because it was here she felt most comfortable, most wild and most free. She was accepted here, and nowhere else for that matter, as an adult, as a grown-up. In her poetry she wrote about the harvest of desolation, the anguish of trials by fire and error, past mistakes, lives that were wrecked by emotional scarring, the youth who were detached from and attached to violence, marches, protests, Bantu education, boycotts and the eeriness of loneliness and mental illness.

She was scarred by mental illness very early on in her life. When she was ten years old her mother who had spent time in a psychiatric hospital, Valkenberg, took her own life. She consoled herself by telling herself that she and her sister were not orphans and they would not grow up as urchins or go to an orphanage and be mistreated. They had a father who would come and whisk them away to a house filled with laughter, jokes and happiness.

Instead this had not come true and she had to find other ways and means of escaping from her step-siblings and her step-mother she had christened as evil when she was a teenager. As she grew older she began to accept her father as being distant, vague and remiss and absent. A father, who had already abandoned them at birth, abandoned them again and again as she grew into womanhood.

But ghosts are loyal citizens of the world they live in, they are wise beings from a spiritual realm, they vanish into thin air and they love you when you are sick, when you are fat, when you can’t be dragged away from the intense feelings that come over you. They know that writing keeps the demons at bay. It is only a temporary sanctuary for self-loathing and insecurity. When they decide to show you the way they choose the time they appear with care. They appear when tears must be dried.

She is standing barefoot on the sandy beach. She is looking carefully at the light. The sunlight plays on the water, caresses it softly, illuminates everything immediately but she is shivering, trembling. The sky's blue dissolve lingered overhead. Ingrid Jonker is meeting her father for the first time today. She wonders if she looks anything like him. She wonders if he'll like her stories and her poems and what he will think of the idea of her being a writer one day when she is grown up. When she is older she says she doesn’t care that he said she was dead to him. She says it as if she means it. As if there is some importance and purpose behind her words but it is just a careful shadow to recover what is left of her dignity and integrity. She wants to reclaim some orderliness and decency into her life.

His approval is already important to her. She cannot wait for his arrival, to welcome him. She does not know yet that she and her sister will cry themselves to sleep in their father's new home. She does not know yet that life is the cause and effect of accidents waiting to happen. She needs his love, his guidance, but she is unprepared for the future that awaits her in her stepmother's new home.

Everything was already wrecked before she turned around and ran back to the house as she scrambled to put her shoes on. She didn't waste any time with regret as an adult, but with heartache she had finally found the words to translate the hunger and pain that consumed her as a child, careening away from the only home she had ever known. It was the same heartache; the same human stain that the mothers and daughters, wives and sisters of the lost but cherished and beloved men of this country had during the legacy of Apartheid. In her writing she felt she was finally accepted, loved. She felt she was finally going home. She was finally going to a home of her own and to a country of her own. She no longer felt so lost, so alone and rejected and isolated, blind. She would no longer seek comfort from lovers who would give her the cold shoulder and she would no longer be a girl in their company. She would no longer be a stranger in this mad country she called home. She was done with wishing the past was dead in the early hours of the morning dragging on a cigarette and drinking cups of tepid milky coffee with a murky residue at the bottom of the cup.

The ghost stood at the edge of the sea water watching the black sky. It knew some day that the legacy of her poetry, the poetry of her waking dreams and the writing of her infinite traces of sadness would be celebrated around the world.

Ingrid's Ghost 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.


Abdul said...

A very deep, mysterious story. Without a hook or dialogue, it teaches more than it entertains. But who said a writer must entertain?

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