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Genius behind the Closed Door Genius behind the Closed Door
by Abigail George
2013-07-22 10:02:53
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Ella’s ghost sits at the foot of my bed staring at me with her long, sad, mournful face. I wait to hear for her footsteps in the dark. She keeps me company in the early hours. When dawn comes with the light filtering through the thin curtains, I turn around to look for her, but she is never there. Usually I am the talkative one and she listens. I mean with the state that she is in; all she can do is stare and wonder really what has brought the two of us together and who sanctioned ‘it’, this relationship. I am reading her books. I want to read all of them, push myself to get through it all, the real-life episodes, the real madness of her, her lovers, her experiences, the death of her son, separation from her daughter and the alcoholism but what I really want to ask her is, how do you love, how do you fall in love. Is it always an experiment? Does it always feel unnatural and disturbing when the person you’re in love with leaves you, is someone always going to be hurt and the will the one on the receiving end of that hurt, that intense feeling of rejection and pain relive it in recurring flashbacks.

I have many questions and I hope to find the answers to them in her books, the genius in her books.  Ella, I want to say, help me. Help me to understand the cause and effect of the love affair (alone with all the difficulties of illness). What does that mean? To long for company, the smell of rain, to live and breathe solitude, birds singing, wind’s song, sun disappearing behind clouds, cool breeze, father exercising and mother resting in the quiet of the afternoon, how I came to be in this world, alone, with my books and my writing, me with my sad, brown eyes and dark hair, brittle soul and serious nature. Now look at me. Look at how far I have come. Look at how far I still have to go, the obstacles and challenges of my youth are no longer facing me. Over time things will change. I will become more set in my ways. Discontent my middle name, peculiar, peculiar, peculiar, even more so at 32, with my life hanging precariously in the balance, no ring on my finger.

Was it all worth it? The bullying mother, the bullies on the playground, the matron and the captain hissing under their breath to mop the floor at the Salvation Army, clear the tables, wash the dishes, pack the crates, unpack them, the perishables going into the storage room, the meat going into the fridge, living even then in a dream world. Imagination, the consolation prize, always under the illuminating spell of imagination, gripped by its fierce call and something was loosed in me. Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth, always two cities rising up to meet me head on, a crash test dummy set on a collision course with nowhere else to go but to meet the world in a thin line with hope put aside. A dummy that knew the final outcome would be misery. I would wash the crates. Wash them out with a hose, dry them with a damp cloth and then stack them up against a wall outside. They would be filled later that day with food from Woolworths. Was I happy doing this? No, not really but in a way it comforted me.

I was around people and that had to count for something. Something in me expanded. I wasn’t that solitary figure that stood out in assembly. A stick figure, all arms and legs, awkward, who could hardly speak, open her mouth, stand her ground. I was around people who were like me, estranged from family, homeless rejects that had a low opinion of themselves, no sense of self-worth, who wanted to give of themselves but didn’t know how. Somehow being around people like that made me a kinder, more sincere version of myself. I spent nearly a year at the Salvation Army and before that a few months at a shelter. Looking back on those times, I can sense it must have been a very frightening time for me but it went by in a flash and now I have adventures, poignant and sad, funny and wise to write about. The people I have met have become like well-known characters in stories, liked, loved very much and hated. I feed on their loss, my suffering, and the world that I saw in their eyes that was launched into the space around them.

And then there was my world. Sometimes I soared and there were other days I didn’t. Those were the days when I took liberties with my neurotic female sentiment. When I preferred to slide under the covers, addicted to the warmth and comfort. No addiction is kind, I tell Ella. Did she just move her head in agreement, in my direction? She, of course I have figured this out now, is just here to guide me. I understand all I have to do is talk. Whispering will suffice. I don’t have to be loud. What does it take to be a writer, to write? Her eyes seem to say, you’ll soon figure that part out elegantly. There is no need for you to be so superstitious but then again, those are clearly my words, not hers. I move backwards in time. I move to childhood.  ‘Age before beauty,’ snigger, snigger, sniggering behind my back and then I am on the steps, on the way to class, my cheeks burning. I am turning red but no one can see. I am safe for now because no one can see. Tonight they were fighting again.

Although they closed their bedroom door I could still hear them, father as docile as a pet and mother screaming. What they usually fought about was money. If my mother loved me, she didn’t say it. But was it all worth it, one tragedy and one adventure, one unfortunate discovery of the cruel and dangerous world in my life after the other. Yes, yes and yes. Overwhelming loneliness. What does that mean?  First you succumb to it and then you must overcome. I take long walks up deserted streets, through crowds, the lunch rush in the financial hub of Johannesburg. I talk animatedly to Ella, as if I must make up for lost time, for something that I must still gain. She does not smile. But tonight she has turned away from me as if she knows something that I do not know. This is a loneliness that I must bear, it is my burden. How can I refuse it, refuse kismet? I am a grown woman, not a child yet I still feel as if there is something of the child about me. When will that change? When will sensibility start creeping in, a feminist intuition?

I pick up her book, Ella’s book, lying next to me on the bed, the bed my parents bought when they were newlyweds. Smile Please, an unfinished autobiography by Jean Rhys. I run away too when I’m scared, if I start something and I fail at it, I quit it. I’ve failed at so many things. I’ve failed my family; I’ve failed my sister, society and the laws of the universe. When I’ve been presented with chances and opportunities, I’ve missed them or once again failed to see them. Jean Rhys is Ella’s ‘name’. It is Ella’s book or rather the ghost’s story, the ghost’s life history. It is enough that she doesn’t say anything, not a word. She shines. She glides. I am happy that there is no laughter here. Children’s laughter can be particularly cruel, hard to take, harder to displace. I have learnt that game in a treacherous way. There are no bottles stowed away in cupboards or under the kitchen sink. Now why would I want to go and do something useless and stupid like that? I hate the taste of cigarettes and that cutting smell in the air. I want to live before I die.

Let’s talk about love. And how the sun and the days compensate for the lack of you. The massive collection of the links to the chains of my material inheritance to this earth, landscape after landscape, Petrified Forest after petrified forest, castle after castle. You were my cure, my open window, my door standing ajar, my glass ceiling, my chipped tooth, angel perfected in youth already. You navigated and uplifted me the day you became exceptional (as I move towards immortality). You’re my inheritance and editor, my Christmas present, hollow Easter chocolate egg and rain, my half-suggestion and implication. Now I fear no criticism or pain. Childhood transformations have come and gone. They have taken reading bedtime stories with them, discrimination, girls in their school skirts, white summer blouses, panic and youth’s illustration. Another current’s gone global and a river soughs in soughs out in and out of the ocean sea (perhaps Pacific, perhaps Indian). It is locked into that infinite eight.

Now there is only time for growing older, little time for little else, for everything. Your footprint’s gone digital and mine is sucked into a sandal. And for those who like prose. There is nothing diminutive about it. It dissolves, you can distil it, the language’s flowers, the routes you traverse in your mind’s eye and the messages are never dull, cruel perhaps, mystical even. And for the once upon a serious lover that you were, you who had eyes like bees and skin as pale as paper. The man whose wife I wanted to be in the mean time and the hereafter. The man who I wanted to carry me through illness, and from youth to womanhood (he who had no red heart only a bleeding one). Your breath is rust, your heart is rust while he is far (far and away). In retrospect now I realise he was no miracle. While he hurt me and I wept, (I could not see that that intention was always there) all I could see was the lake of my hurt while I plummeted like a comet. You are a magnificent fish. Your fins have a brilliant color and feel like oil on my hands. A swimming pool cannot be renovated. Alas! I am still me. I flicker like the faces of angelic children in a choir. 

And for those who like poetry.

I reckon Ella always had an unstable greatness within her. Aren’t all the greats born that way?  She is my rival. There is nothing motherly about me except perhaps my clothes, the way I wear my hair now and I move differently in the world. I move ‘on my terms’. And what about celebrity? Celebrities want publicity and they will sell their soul for it but what does the poet want? Do they really want a peace of mind or just peace or just to observe it, their soul observing it. Celebrities do not want our kind of empathy. They do not want us to relate to them at all. What the poet wants is this (eternal grace in the gaze of a child, a lion's courage through the looking glass of this wonderland of earth.) What the poet craves sorely is empathy and for the world to be kind to those who endure hurt, and who have to survive woundedness.

Once I found your lines on the page inviting (every curve, hollow, every vertical, every horizontal was home, a Hallelujah, was publicity, entertainment, scrabble, Communion, a tongue). I needed poetry then. It distracted me. Common sense no longer spoke to me (well at least not the way you did). And peace is so subtle even now. The truly great ones do not want to walk the road of intuition; they do not want people to be infatuated with them, to recite their words back to them verbatim, and they certainly do not want to be treated like some kind of an angelic host. They do not like publicity. Instead they (the best) shy away from it, from all of the cameras, the questions, and the starry-eyed gazes and wear self-effacing masks numbing themselves and all of their associations. They keep their hearts pure and their minds pure. The true ones commit themselves to a country of purity. They write odes, sonnets. It is essential that they do this do their heart’s content. It is essential that they do not scorn haiku. It is essential that they do not scorn poverty but I want to pick at all of it. All chatter matters. And hell is like a brick to the latest swarm-buzz-attack shaking news-day to the head.

And how did Ella come to find intelligence, tragedy-multiplied, anchored into life’s sequences of despair, moving scenes, moving pictures, the roles men played in her life, the rogues, her rivals (of course other women and her sisters, aunts), and the scenarios of playing playful husbands and wives. Could she fathom wedding cake as she did prose?

Once I found her I always found imagination.


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