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The Archipelago
by Abigail George
2015-02-08 11:52:41
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My father told me before I left for Johannesburg not to get into a strange man’s car. My mother wrote me letters filled with verses. All I was homesick for was the winter slippers of the shore.

‘He thinks that he is such a hot shot. Hello, I am Carla. You must be new here.’

‘He is a hot shot. He also thinks he is the black sheep of the family and that he drinks too much. He cannot talk at all to his father. His mother dotes on him. She smothers him.’

arch01_400‘You do not think that he is in love with you. He sleeps with all the interns.’

‘I do not think I am special Carla. I know what my limitations are. I am flawed just as much as he is.’

‘Good. Just checking. Take my husband for example. I leave him alone when he wants to watch sports and he leaves me alone when I want to read a book. He is an animal in the bedroom. A tiger.’

‘Once you don’t have a Douglas in your life, you will never have one, is that what you are trying to tell me?’

‘Not in so many words but that is the gist of it.’

(Is she being spiteful? Her open smile hides grief, hides her spite).

Inside an envelope, there is an archipelago, a dead tree, snow flowers, and an identity of a man called Peter.

Listen. You hear them shooting out of the ground again, new stems and the colour of memory. The colour of the day. Mice and men are brothers here. Souls are fading. Silence is like a small basin in a room. He could remember plenty of things about her. The way she wore her hair away from her face, kept it in place with barrettes. He could remember her lovely mouth, her eyes, the way her hair fell to her shoulders. He wish she did not have to smoke though. Smoker’s mouth they called it. I keep thinking of this invisible river. Hours. Needles of loneliness. Long thin needles of loneliness, despair, hardship and isolation. I think of hours in stretches as if they are elastic bands. The moon is a spot. Human beings are stains. He thought of the dark. Warm bodies in the dark. Eleanor’s body in the dark. How everything she said and did not say was exquisite. For a moment, there was conversation at his table and then they became aware of the noise around them.

(Couples chatting at the other tables and then he was holding her hand across the table. Here I am two people. A sexual object and a young adult.)

‘I damaged her somehow. I didn’t understand what I was doing.’

‘Peter, she was already damaged.’

‘She was not even a woman yet. I took her in my arms and she lifted her dress over her head and said, ‘kiss me’.’

‘Did she drink with you?’

‘Then she was a woman.’

‘A girl who drinks with a man is a woman.’

‘Did she get into your car?’


‘Then Peter she was a woman.’

‘She wasn’t frightened.’

‘Of course, she wasn’t frightened. She knew what was coming.’

‘I should not have taken advantage of her in that way. I just was not strong enough. She was lonely. I was lonely.’

‘She was too young. Your women are always too young.’

‘You noticed that too.’

‘Nobody else would have noticed that besides me, your best friend.’

‘What do you want Peter? Do you want a wife?’

‘I saw what my father did to my mother. I do not want a wife. He always treated her with a lack of grace.’

I did not think I could ever really lose Peter the way my father use to lose his socks in the laundry. The more I thought about him, the desire to hold him, kiss his face, hold his hand, his fingers interlocked with mine, our conversations; making love while Eric Clapton sang in the background the more it seemed to me that perhaps it never was. Perhaps it had been too good to be true. For a brief time, I had everything that women’s magazines told me I should have. The perfect colour lipstick, the perfume that matched my personality, although I needed more shoes, more dresses. Although, I was curvaceous and voluptuous enough to be ready for summer. I was not a borderline personality. I was reading chick lit. I was a fan of Lena Durham. I watched Girls and Sex in the City. I was not afraid of nudity.  Of seeing other women nude and comparing my body with theirs. Peter loved me in dresses and I began to wear them more often to the office.

‘I am ruined by literature. All the greats have ruined love for me. What were your favourite books when you were a child?’

‘Do you mind if we just make love?’

‘No. No, I do not mind. We can talk later.’ She waited for him to kiss her. Kiss her again.

Their fingers locked. He smiled at her.

‘I love this dress. I love your bare arms in this dress. I think I will make you coffee in the morning.’

‘Do you promise?’

‘I only make coffee for certain types of people. Why do you like writing poetry?’

‘You saw my journal.’

‘You write about me?’

‘I write about people, the places that I love. Ephemera, the cold, lovers. Nature.’

He wanted to tell her not to get too attached to him but she made him feel tall. She made him feel handsome as if he could conquer anything. Conquer the world. At midnight, he opened a can of peaches for them and they ate it like that with spoons from the can. I wondered if night was the best time for him. He did not seem to dream. Did not want to talk about dreaming when he woke up? Did not want to talk about the army but well, why would he want to talk about being in the army at sixteen going on seventeen to a child who was also a dreamer who was also a poet/writer. He did not like it when I called him ‘handsome’.

‘No, I am not handsome. I look too depressed.’ Peter said switching the dishwasher on. He was a neat freak. ‘If I called you a poet you would not like that either Eleanor.’

‘I’m not ready yet to call myself a poet. I have not been published yet. When I am published I will call myself a poet.’ She kissed Peter hard on the cheek. He blushed.

‘If you could live in any city in the world which city would it be.’

‘I am a writer so it would have to be Paris. I do not want to go to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower. I want to become a serious writer and write novels.’

‘I studied in New York.’

‘Tell me about New York.’

‘New York was lonely but it never sleeps. No, it never sleeps. New York is so far away from Ohio, the Midwest. If you want to seriously study-study, the craft of writing go to Ohio.’

The sun was coming up.

He locked his fingers in hers again and said, ‘Let’s go back to bed again and rehearse love all over again.’

(She could hear her father’s words in her head. If he, if any man in the workplace pays you too much attention, he will want to take you to bed. Men do not want women as friends. No matter what they say. Men want lovers.)

Darkness terrifies me. Peter I cannot fathom. I cannot flee from it. I watch him sleep. He is a beautiful stranger. My beautiful stranger. My contract is nearly up and then I will be flying home. Flying home to my fattening, indifferent, aloof sea that tastes like saltwater. He knows nothing about my mental illness, stints in hospitals, relapses and recoveries, and the fact that I move to the beat of a different drum in this world. There is a space between us on the bed. Something so vulnerable about him. This is light of mapping, of the mind, of handling babies. He has a good smell. The sheets smell of him. The wet towels smell of him. I want to take this smell with me wherever I go. I have fallen annihilating everything that I have believed in since childhood. I am home. I have no more rivals. Only one. My mother. She kisses me perfunctorily on the cheek after picking me up from the airport.

She makes a stone goddess out of me as if this is the first time we are meeting. As if, we are strangers. South African is still Africa. The flowers colours are startling in her garden. I have not followed her on that route. I imagine my first night home that the stars have eyes. The sky is painted with them. I go early to bed and I think of him. Doubtful that he is thinking of me because there will always be interns. This hurts me. This colour hurts me. My mother has put flowers in my room. White flowers for her virginal daughter. They have tongues. They want to eat my air. The walls want to evaporate around me. Red blooms would not have been healthy for me. Blood is red. When blood comes to your attention then something is either deathly pale or exquisitely wrong. Look at the parasites feeding off the vapours of illness in the wards during visiting hours. I am a lost traveller.

My shoes have walked distances in Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg, Grahamstown, Cape Town, Wilderness, the Garden Route, Plettenburg Bay and Swaziland. I have received all kinds of educations there. My mother is a homemaker now after being a teacher. Blood is red. Dust is the answer after all in the end. Sleep does not have a house. Does not have a quantity. Blood has a house. Lungs has a house. They all have quantities. Reality was darkness to me. I lived in darkness all my life. I have lived with ghosts all my life. Ghost stories on the periphery. Ghost stories on the horizon. Life has hurt me so I have no companions. Better that why. To have no friends who will despise you if you are successful. Life has hurt me so I have no one to love. There is no one left to love me or understand me. They say that misery loves company but I do not miss company. I do not want to begin again. I do not want to leave home again.

I am home for good like a tiny shoot. The tiny shoots in my mother’s garden. I have a passion for idle chatter about books, language and literature. Preparing a meal together, that can be romantic. Preparing a meal for one can be sensuous, sensual and can have a wonderful ending. The end of the book also means the death of a book and after that comes the mania and the depression. One or the other. There is sadness but also pleasure in forgetting but how can there be pleasure in forgetting on how touched me. Removed the articles of clothing from my physical body. I was a latecomer. I was a late bloomer if I ever bloomed at all. The truth hurts. The truth that you never were loved until you were successful and if you were not successful, not loved why it should hurt. Those people do not love you as real friends do or your family made out of substance.

If I were an alcoholic, a raging alcoholic, I would drink all my sorrows away. Sadness to me reminds me of Hemingway driving ambulances in the war. No way out. Sadness reminds me of Monroe. No way out. It is scary how easily we can lose our minds, lose everything, lose our sanity and then still call it reality. Losing your mind is chemical. To pop a pill or a pharmaceutical for it. If we asked for help that is the alarming unknown. Life has hurt me. When life hurts you, which way do you go, up or down? When life hurts you what happens to a healthy body, a healthy mind? They gradually, gradually diminish. Evaporate. There was a false self. A Peter who believed in his power, that he could dominate any situation that he found himself in, that he could smoke and drink and be one of the guys but also a Lothario.

Does this mean that men evolve faster than women do, would we ever live in an integrated society where the sexes would be equal? The bewildered self is unchanging. Men are unchanging when it comes to sex. Inertia. That would be the first word to describe my personality. Frightened and confused when it comes to sex, sensuality and the sexual transaction. Men will give you money to go away. Men do not want you to make trouble for them. I poured myself into After Leaving Mr Mackenzie. I poured myself into Jean Rhys’s novels and I saw more than sadness, suffering, losing youth there. I saw human rights. The men perhaps had all the power because they had the money but who was the greater, the woman or the man with her beguiling attractiveness, her youthful appeal, her attractiveness.

Drinking makes women lose their looks and suffering. Estrangement from family. The coat of isolation, the dress of despair, living in circumstances of poverty waiting and living from maintenance to maintenance cheque, utter, utter hardship, the shoes of desolation, rouge pots to bring colour into her pale face. Even keeping journals of relationships can make women lose their looks. I loved Jean Rhys. I loved her feminism. I loved her inertia. I loved the way she used the way ‘drink’ and ‘exotic’. Brazil was ‘exotic’ to her. Brazil was ‘exotic’ to me too. As a writer, I was developing all the time. I deserted female protagonists and I built them up again like a temple. Jean Rhys was frightened of the world. I was frightened of the world but I could not sell my soul to a stranger no matter how lost I was. She had an alarming personality.

To me she was beautiful, this artist’s model, this film extra, a woman who had been married three times. I think she would understand my chronic illness, my fatigue, and me. I think we would be best friends or pen pals. She would write to me of her daughter’s successes and Devon and I would send her my poetry. Two manic-depressive kind of personalities. Later in articles, they spoke about her hypomanic rages and her alcoholism. I never touched drink. It uproots you. Plants you some place you will never remember the morning after. Plants you in the hands of a man who will certainly take advantage of you. What was sexuality like in Jean Rhys’s day? No different from now. It was the age of wisdom then. It was the age of wisdom now. She had siblings. I had siblings. I hated them. They were like sick birds. I wanted them to fly away.

I also wanted them to stay so I could watch over them, give them water. My sister became a swan. My brother a wise owl. I loved them and when I lost them to the outside world of course, I cried. I sobbed wretchedly. I wept silently. I thought of Jean Rhys. Of how her Dominican planet had a school path, a father who was a doctor, a mother who was a Creole. Jean Rhys taught me that writers must live in isolation. There is space for lovemaking, for reading, for men and woman, for children, for taking chances, for meals, for a wasteland of dustbins. I will never fathom men. I will never marry. Mum does not have time anymore for dad. Dad does not have any more time for mum. Home was hellish and dysfunctional. There would be rows over the dining room table, the kitchen table, the family room.

A splendid brightness would fill my eyes. My mother never tucked me in at night. My father would leave my door ajar. The light a sun. When I was a child, I thought that sleep came with darkness. When I grew older, I took long naps in the glare of the afternoon sunlight. The darkness was my enemy. Daylight was a triumph. I sat on a throne. The butternut, cauliflower, mange tout, and strawberry queen growing gloriously in my brother’s garden. That was my reality. I knew I had to accept it or else I would go kaput. I would go on forever living in a Dadaist surreal world. I smoked in high school but they were half-hearted efforts. My brother was savage and arrogant. My sister is savage and arrogant. I am doomed because the people will always betray me that I love the most in this world. I struggle, and I triumph.

Life is like that. Calling the reading of other people’s minds a mysterious telepathy. I have to build bridges now. Bridges that cannot be burnt. Every cell in my body wants to receive the haunting night sky, the ghost story (it is like returning to an alien world). You know what, when the pain annihilates me completely I feel alive. It reminds me that I am still alive. It reminds me that I am still human, part of humanity, most of all it reminds me that the humiliation was worth it. I could get a story out of it. The field of his hair was at the centre of my being. I could get a story out of that. It was not pain-free, mostly inertia. His hands were on my hands asking me where to I wanted him to touch me. That was not completely pain-free. I do not feel desire anymore. It does not bother me. There is hope, there is escape and there is the exit out.

Pain makes me feel terrific on the good days. On the bad days, pain makes me feel like I want to go into hibernation, and that the humiliation I feel must be touched upon. Erased and touched. Diminished somehow. I could not alter the pity. That was part of her innerness. There is hope that remains that someday I will be loved. Someone will love the illness, the disability, the renal impairment too, the jokes, funny and unfunny, the burnt pots, the rubbish food. They will eat it and call me ‘brilliant’ but I know that will never happen and I am okay with it. I do not need to make speeches anymore about it. About love and being unloved. Of being married and living in an unhappy marriage. In a strange way, I feel detached from it. Having one lover was better than having had none. Having a lover when I was a fully-fledged anorexic.

I write about him to make the ghost stories go away. Everything that haunts me. It feels good to me that my spirit was touched in some way. Cabernet spilled over onto the sheets and we laughed. It felt good to laugh. My spirit felt light and everything in the world was effortless and easy again. Nurturing the ground that I walked upon. The freshly mowed grass smelled sweet and cut. I looked at everything in Port Elizabeth, knew I would never see him again. His life had changed my life. Given me liberty. I loved him, that would never change but what is the measure of love? Loss is the measure of love. I remember what it felt like to have his hands on my breasts, as I stared into his eyes, wondering what he was thinking, as he stared back into mine. Even the silence whispered sweet nothings in my ears as he slept.

I had opened my heart to get rid of everything. That stale loaf, that unhappy memory, childhood grief, yes, grief, complicated denial, the holocaust but what was he losing. What was he yearning for? I knew it instinctively that I could not give it to him. I was not the proper girlfriend. Not yet a woman. Still a girl. Still naïve. A runaway, an interloper, the wrong race if you had to play the race card. It did not matter to him that I prayed. The energy in the air was romantic. He was the domestic animal. He just wanted me to acquiesce. First loves always ended badly and it was usually the woman who was the one who was hurt. The young gamine girl. Flesh wins every time in real life. You have to have a strategy if you are going out on a pilgrimage not just a plan. There are moments in life when all that pain is is an abyss and there is nothing that you can do about it but grit your teeth.

‘Douglas said when we were first going out that you have to look good to make a man interested in you. You have to wear your hair in a certain way, wear makeup, shine on your lips, and rouge on your cheeks and you have to love him whatever it takes.’ By this time, two months into a contract Carla had become friends with Eleanor. ‘You have to love him and make love even if he is angry, even if you have had a big fight and you want to walk out on him. Even if he has upset you, used bad language, broken your favourite vase, with you just pour him a drink.’

‘I do not know about all of that. I am fine the way I am. My mother always told me to be myself.’

‘Do you know how hot Peter is? He could have anyone. He chose you.’

‘You told me that he sleeps with all the interns.’

‘You are special.’

‘Maybe in my dreams but I will be going home soon.’

‘Stay what it is there for you in your heartland. Maize?’

‘Actually Port Elizabeth is not the rural countryside. There is not sheep everywhere. Not even a sprinkling of cows. It is an industrial city. Peter does not feel anything for me. The relationship is based purely on sex.’

‘Do not go around telling people that? People are starting to look up to you in a way.’

‘Carla, I do not know care what other people think about me. Soon, I am going home. I am not in love with him.’ Eleanor lied.

What did he think about when he was with me? Real love is like a manic Monday. Unexpectedly it happens very briefly, exquisitely, you are elated for the day that it returns. You wait for its return. Eleanor knows that Peter will never return to her but his name still makes her feel elated inside. The brush of his hand against the inside of her thigh, brushing against her stocking. The journey to Johannesburg had been significant. Peter had made it significant. She had accepted his flesh. Accepted that decay is a significant exercise over the years. His flesh would decay. Her flesh would also decay. The erotica he read to her would simply waste away and the words would have no meaning, no purpose. Without him in her life world, she thought that she would cease to exist but here was her father now, infirm and elderly. She was a lover of tea again. She was a girl again. A child coddled by both parents. She took walks with her father. She watched old films safely back in reality. An old man who was her universe again, in need of care, in need of her and she felt the familiar emotion of love and Peter was no more. Desire was no more. She was plotting against history once more.


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