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The apartment in Tamboerskloof The apartment in Tamboerskloof
by Abigail George
2017-04-30 11:11:23
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Ming always thought that ‘apartment’ was a fancy word for ‘flat’. Couples were flocking to Tamboerskloof. Buying up property there. It was a pretty nice place to raise a daughter. Have a family. A dog. A cat. That white picket fence scenario.

table01_400_01   People could be seen walking their dogs and jogging in the afternoon sun. At that time in her life Ming was a missionary and a freelance photographer juggling both. There were times when she was younger when she had travelled all over Africa but that was another time in her life.

   The photography gig paid her bills for now. But she wanted more out life. So, she decided to pack up and go and live like a hippie on a commune outside of Cape Town.

   Ever since she was a little girl she prayed with her dolls. She played convent-convent with them. He dolls were nuns. Catholic. She played church with them. Sang hymns to put them to sleep.

*

At night Ming, would kneel next to her bed and pray to God to forgive her of all the sins that she had committed that day. Being disobedient to her parents. Raising her voice. Feeling envious of Donna’s ballet hair and strawberry-blonde curls.

   Ming’s parents bounced from church to church their whole lives. Presbyterian. Lutheran. Methodist. Union Congregation. Ming would pray that they would not go to hell for this. That one day she would become a minister’s wife and serve the Lord.

   She prayed that she would look after her elderly parents and not put them in a home. Yes, she did put them in a home. Found them both impossible to live with. With their demands. A mother wanting grandchildren.

   A father who often looked at her as if there was something wrong with her because she never married or had children like her cousins and sisters had. First, they had stayed in a caravan in Margie’s backyard (one of Ming’s sisters) and at first that seemed to have worked out but not for long.

   So, it was decided amongst their children that a home would be best for all of them but it was Ming who felt guilty about it. She had made a pact with God. She had promised to look after them. There was a part of her that thought she had failed.

   All her life she wanted to help the sick and the needy. People who lived in poverty. Children who went to bed hungry. Ming didn’t know what hunger was. Her father was a medical doctor (a physician at Mercantile Hospital) and her mother a psychiatric nurse.

   Sometimes Ming would get nightmares. She would wake up in the middle of the night frightened of the dark. Of the shadows in her room. The only thing that made her go back to bed and fall asleep was the nightlight next to her.

*

‘Don’t be grim now just because you’re not getting your way Ming. You’re the one who came into my life unannounced. That’s the cardinal issue here. I love you too but this, what you’re asking of me has nothing to do with love. Of course, I want you in my life. I wouldn’t be with you if I didn’t want it that way. Moving in together is a big step.’ Bianca nearly screamed. That’s how mad she felt. Packed into a corner.

   ‘Why would I be grim about this whole situation? You always use that word Bianca. Why do you always use that word to describe me, what I’m thinking and feeling?’ Ming asked.

   ‘It describes you, your behaviour and your face perfectly. Let’s not argue. Come here. I’ve missed you. Did you miss me? How was the road?’ Bianca brushed her braids out of her face.

   ‘Of course, I’ve missed you Bianca. It’s just been one of those days. The road was long.’ Ming said.

   ‘Did you get some good pictures of the Owl House? I wonder if Athol Fugard is still alive?’ Bianca asked with another toss of her hair through the air.

   ‘Yes, yes I did get some great pictures.’ Ming said. ‘I don’t know if Fugard is still alive, hey. Didn’t even think about him while we were there Graaff Reinet. There was this great place that served really good food for lunch.’  Ming turned and made her way to the study that they shared.

*

‘Let’s not go to bed and fight again. I hate it. We should be together. I was thinking maybe you’d like to move in.’

   ‘Isn’t it too soon? I mean it’s only been a few months. Let’s wait and see.’ Bianca was reading Osip Mandelstam’s Stolen Air.

   ‘Wait for what? Don’t you want to be with me, Bianca?’ Ming said obstinately.

   ‘It’s not that Ming. I don’t know. I just don’t know. I want to be with you. With my whole heart and being. I’ve lived with other women before. The experience is nothing new for me but for you, I’m just wondering if it’s the right time for you. You know there are things a girl will always remember. Her first kiss. Her first love. Her first boyfriend. Her first ex,’ said Bianca with nostalgia in her voice. ‘But are you sure Ming? Are you really sure that you want to be with me?’ Bianca had been on the same page for a few minutes now. She did not meet Ming’s hot gaze.

   ‘Why are you bringing that up now? I know that I want to be with you.’ Ming argued. Her face growing red.

   ‘I need a drink.’ Bianca got out of bed and went to the kitchen. ‘I’m going to pour myself a glass of red wine. Do you want one?’

   ‘You know we have to talk about this. You can’t just walk away from me, determined, stubborn, arrogant as always.’ Ming threw the book against the wall.

   ‘Oh Ming, that’s the qualities of me that you love the most, isn’t it?’ Bianca turned and walked out the door ignoring Ming’s tantrum.

   ‘You’re incorrigible Bianca!’ said Ming exasperated.

   ‘Only children throw tantrums when they don’t get their way, Ming. Really!’ Ming’s voice could be heard coming from the stairs.

*

Rain poured down from the sky on the day Bianca met Ming. It was cold even though Bianca was wearing a leather jacket. Gathering clouds swam with grace and mercy in the sky.

   The birds flying and sinking with the flow. Everything was going bad for Bianca that day. So, bad that her anxiety had flared up again. So, did the tremors in her hands.

   She couldn’t stop shaking. Wondering if it was the medication. She had never completely got over the death of her sister who had killed herself in high school because of bullying.

   Bianca had had a bad day at work at the newspaper where she worked as a reporter. Then she got stuck in traffic in her red Cressida. She had to go and interview a missionary named Ming who lived on a commune just outside of the city and she was late. Traffic was bumper to bumper.

   The commune was a kind of a smallholding, with lush gardens and they had a few cows that they sold to a butcher when they ran out of money to pay for their lights and electricity.

*

It was a twenty-minute drive outside of Cape Town. The article that Bianca was going to write about was on retreats.

   People could come and stay there for an indefinite period of time, working the land, coming for a weekend to do a meditation course or they could come to write or finish a novel.

   Or if they were going through a nasty ‘conscious uncoupling’ (see divorce). For Bianca and Ming, it was love at first sight. The attraction was instant. Bianca had asked Ming out.

   Ming over the years had grown to have an open mind when it came to matters of the heart. For a long time, she had been in a dark place.

   Now with Bianca by her side there was a light in her voice, her steps and eyes that hadn’t been there before.

*   

How does love at first sight work? Is it only attracted to the beauty in youth? The picture of Dorian Gray teaches us that but that is not the most truthful account of love or youth for that matter. Love at first awakens the soul to lay the foundations to connect with another soul. It’s love that enlightens the serotonin and dopamine levels in our warm bodies as well as the endorphins to work harder at being happy. Joyful. Palpably elated.

*

Ming’s mother always knew the secret that her daughter carried around her all these years she had lived in her parents’ house.

   Ming thought of all the times she had fought with Geraldine bitterly. She remembered her mother’s harsh words ringing inside her head. ‘If you’re gay you’re gay.’

   ‘If you want to read those dirty magazines read them. See if I care. Just put them out of my reach, where I can’t see them when I come and want to clean your room.’

   ‘Tidy that pig’s nest of yours for your own good.’ Her mother had never said go see a psychiatrist or some kind of therapist or counsellor.

   Take some pills it would do you the world of good. Help you to cope with reality. And what hurt the most was this.

   ‘Electroconvulsive therapy for you if you don’t watch out before your fortieth birthday, crazy-person.’

   Instead Geraldine dragged Ming to a happy-clappy church filled with Born Again Christians. Always asking the minister to drag the demons out of Ming’s soul.

*

Bianca, Ming and Hannah sat watching Thumbelina in silence. Bianca and Ming sat holding hands and eating caramel popcorn. This was important to them as a family.

   To have date nights. Family nights. Always showing solidarity in the face of stigma or questions or frowns on how they were living their lives and raising their daughter on their own terms.

   Sunday afternoon stretched out in front of them. Hannah turned to look at her mothers. Of course, she didn’t look like either of them. Hannah had blue eyes. 

   Her mothers’ eyes were brown. Her hair was like silk down her back. It was loose. Hannah didn’t know yet she was a beautiful child who would grow into a beautiful woman.

   Bianca and Ming would keep that kind of knowledge far away from their daughter for as long as they possibly could.

*

Bianca’s melon and smoky ham bites on toothpicks were left untouched on the plate next to the grown-up crisps (prawn cocktail).

   The spring rolls stuffed with feta and spinach were cold and unappetising now. Long past the divine sweet-and-sour crunchy state.

   This was the first time that Ming had been in Bianca’s charming little flat in Tamboerskloof. She had finally been invited. That had been the place where they had their first fight.

   They had fought about secrets and confession. Keeping secrets was bad Ming reckoned not holding back the tears in her eyes. Why couldn’t she have a key to Bianca’s flat?

   Was there no honesty in this relationship, Ming questioned Bianca? How long did she think this relationship would last if they kept secrets from each other, Ming asked Bianca?

*

And Ming did a real volcano song and dance about it that day. In the end, they married because they loved each other and decided instead of buying a new place they would stay in the apartment in Tamboerskloof.

*

Every woman likes to think of herself as enchanting. Charming but really it is a man who is charming. It is the man who sweeps the woman off her feet. Pays for the honeymoon.

   Usually the bills after the honeymoon are the responsibility of both partners. That’s how Ming’s parents operated over the years. Drawing up a budget every month. It was a good thing that Bianca knew about budgeting otherwise Ming thought they would never have got married to one another.

*

‘I wanted her to touch me because isn’t that the way one soul communicates with the next. Through touch therapy. I was a map and she was Columbus setting sail for the Americas.’

   Ming wrote in her journal after she had fallen in love with her music teacher her first year in high school. Her teacher Miss Olivia Duncan was all olive skin, freckles, glasses, pretty face.

   Golden sandals with tan lines on her feet. A disenchanted woman is a sad woman because she has no one to read her soul. She is a miserable, depressing creature of habit.

   When Ming was a teenager she often took to her bed after fighting with her mother. This time about not folding her laundry.

   She danced on her bed and sang Bon Jovi’s I want to lay you down on a bed roses on a Saturday afternoon while listening to the World Chart Show on the radio.

*

‘You’re so beautiful, do you know that. I love you Ming. This is so crazy. Meeting by chance the way we did. I wasn’t even supposed to go out that night but I did and I ended up breaking up with my latest arrogant and handsome actress of a girlfriend. I’ve never been happier. Felt more alive. More in tune with the world around me. Switch the light on. I want to see your face. Do you want to get married? I mean we can talk about it if you want. Of course, I’m serious about it. I’m serious about you, isn’t that enough proof?’

*

‘I don’t need proof that you love me but I’ve been hurt before. You’ve been exclusively with men for such a long time. This is a different experience for you. I don’t want to hurt you. In a way, I’m your first love, Ming.’ Bianca made a dishevelled bun with her hair and tied it with a hairband. She was about to step in the shower. Ming was still half-asleep in the flat in Tamboerskloof. She reached for the coffee that Bianca had made for her and bit into a chocolate croissant. Could life get any better than this, Ming thought to herself. She was in love. She was the luckiest woman in the world.

*

‘I don’t deserve you Ming.’ Bianca turned her head away.

   ‘Don’t say that. You don’t know me like that. I have flaws. I’m not perfect. Don’t do this. Don’t break up with me. I’ve never been so happy.’ Ming said brushing Bianca’s braids over her shoulder.

   ‘I’m not breaking up with you. I just said I don’t deserve you. Maybe I don’t deserve to be so lucky.’ Bianca closed her eyes. ‘I’m tired now. I’m going to bed.’

   ‘I thought we were going to talk, Bianca.’ Ming said.

   ‘I’m tired. I can hardly keep my eyes open anymore. Can it wait till tomorrow?’ Bianca said in a soft voice drifting off to sleep.

*

‘Wear that dress.’ Ming was bored and tired of waiting for Bianca. They had been together for three years by then. They were going to be late, Ming thought to herself, if they didn’t hurry up.

   ‘Oh, this one or this one. I don’t want to look like a peacock as if I’m strutting my stuff or something. I mean I’m already taken and all that. I don’t want to look as if I’m flirting with anyone in front of my wife.’ Bianca laughed.

   ‘Go put it on. I want to see what you’re going to look like in it.’ Ming thought that Bianca looked stunning in anything that she wore.

   ‘I thought you were in a hurry Ming, should I wear it to a wedding? Are you sure. Won’t it clash with what the bride will be wearing. Now pink. That’s a safe colour.’ Bianca took her sweet time in choosing what to wear.

   ‘Okay. Go with the pink then, Bianca.’ By now Ming was bored out of her mind.

  ‘I don’t know. I don’t really want to stand out. It’s Priscilla’s day after all. I don’t want the spotlight to be on me, Ming.’ Bianca was starting to work on Ming’s nerves.

   ‘Bianca, of course you’d look pretty in pink.’ Ming said with a smile.

   ‘What did you say Ming? I didn’t hear you. My head was stuck in the closet.’ Bianca’s voice came from far away.

   ‘I said you’d be pretty in pink. Go with the ‘pretty in pink’ look. You have lipstick on your teeth, Bianca.’

‘Oh Ming, okay then. Then I’ll wear it except I don’t think I have a lipstick to go with it. I need a tissue for the lipstick on my teeth. Be a dear and pass me one. I know. I know. You don’t have to roll your eyes at me. I like to feel as if I made an effort. As if I’m colour coordinated. Look here, I was going to wear the yellow mini-skirt.’

   ‘Oh, you mean the outfit that makes you look like a canary.’ Ming snorted with derision.

   ‘All you had to say was that you didn’t think it would suit me. Spare me the drama Ming. You know how insecure I am. You think you can dress and do makeovers but I’ve got news for you. It’s all because you follow what’s trending on social media. You follow the Kardashians. You think you’re better than me. Than all of our friends. I don’t know why you have to be so snooty.’

‘It stems from my mother I guess. I’ve asked myself that same question repeatedly over the years. Once a snob always a snob I guess. How did they meet? Priscilla and Chaz.’ Ming bit into a cracker. Licking the salt off her lips.

   ‘Super rich in-laws or family or something like that set them up. At least that’s what I heard. An aunt knew an uncle and a friend of the family was looking for a nice girl to settle down with and start a family. Nobody divorced and no one with a child or children.’ Bianca shrugged her shoulders as if to say it had nothing to do with her who Priscilla loved and wanted to marry at the end of the day.

   ‘Obviously, they want the money to stay in the family.’ Ming reached for another cracker in the box.

   ‘I guess. Something like that. I don’t know the details.’ Bianca touched up her lipstick in the mirror.

   ‘So, it’s not love. It’s a marriage of convenience. It’s a sham. How like Priscilla. I wonder how that feels like. To be born and live with a silver spoon in your mouth your whole life while the rest of us have to die and live and breathe all at the same time.’ Ming sighed. Bianca hated when Ming sighed. It sounded as if she was carrying the world on her shoulders. Bianca hated people who were negative all the time.

‘Speaking of your mother Ming, how is she. When did you last speak to her? I’m always telling you she’s not going to be around forever. She needs you.’ Caught on the defensive side Ming said nothing to this.

   ‘She didn’t need me when I was a teenager in high school who didn’t go out on Saturday nights. She left me alone when I was acne-scarred, washing my face with Neutrogena and Clearasil and miserable. Why should I phone her?’ Ming felt teary-eyed just at the thought of the relationship with her mother.

   ‘You should phone her Ming to tell her that you love her.’ Bianca was pulling the dress over her shoulders. ‘Zip me up Ming.’

   ‘You look great in that.’ Ming changed the subject.

  ‘Thanks. Don’t change the subject and when last did you talk to your younger sisters. You’re the eldest in the family. You have this Quasimodo responsibility.’

   ‘Let’s make love.’

‘Now. No. I just did my hair and makeup and everything. It took me this long just to decide on what dress I should wear. You on the other hand can simply put on your little black dress and look amazing. Don’t change the subject, Ming.’ Bianca simply wasn’t in the mood to make love.

   ‘Oh, you mean this old thing. This black dress. I’ve had it since my Matric Dance. Its been in my cupboard for ages and I’ve just carried it with me at the bottom of suitcase everywhere I’ve landed on my feet. Can you believe it that I’ve had it since high school? Mrs Dalloway,’ Ming wolf- whistled. ‘You look like a thousand bucks. You look stunning. ‘Everybody is going to be jealous of my date, my wife.’

   ‘Don’t make an event out of it, Ming, Wasn’t Priscilla in love with you at one time?’

   ‘We went out on a few dates. Coffee, brunch and a luncheon. Sandwiches and juice on the steps of the Johannesburg Library. I mean that was basically it. I wouldn’t have called it a relationship. Remember we met in church.’

*

There’s a thousand things Bianca won’t tell me. Details from her life in Johannesburg. Studying film, media and communication in college. Going on to do graduate work in child psychology and a diploma in marketing. He parents had paid for her education and she had worked as a waitress for extra money. She started out working at an exciting production company. She won’t speak to me of when she stayed in a shelter for abused women and abandoned children in Hillbrow. She won’t speak to me of ex-boyfriends, of her father, relationships, the sister she lost to suicide but even before that, her sister Chrissie was lost to rehab. Hospitals. She was in and out of institutions. Labels were always thrown around. Mood disorder. Schizophrenia. Clinical depression.  

   ‘My mother never believed me. She never believed in me. That was the difference. Maybe that’s why I’m different.’ They were drinking red wine in the TV room and watching Conan O’ Brian after putting Hannah to bed with a story when Ming confessed this to Bianca.

   ‘No, that’s what makes you special. Unique. That’s what I love about you. That we are so different from each other.’ Bianca took Ming in her arms then and held her close.

*

Chaz’s first wife was prettier in their wedding photographs than Priscilla. Priscilla was a mannish looking sort of woman. The first wife was an Elizabeth. An Elizabeth Light. She still ran a cleaning business out of her home that she had started with Chaz. She had a staff of three and they were really doing well. There had been a boom in business. Offices were being let all over the place in Stanford Road. As the business was growing so was the community.       

    Just after apartheid people (see the previously disadvantaged and marginalised) had moved from the Northern Areas (but now newlywed couples were buying up property) to the suburbs as if they belonged there behind electric fences, with wild dogs that seemed ready to attack, lick, bite and eat human flesh. Bianca had kissed Elizabeth Light at a party. Elizabeth Light had kissed her back. Her lips brushing lightly against Bianca’s lips. Elizabeth Light tasted of lipstick, perfume, red wine and vanilla. Elizabeth had a big fight that evening in front of all their friends with Chaz. He had seen the kiss.

*   

‘You’re not young anymore.’ Chaz screamed at the top of his voice, the tendon in his neck showing. ‘You’re just embarrassing yourself. Kissing women in front of everyone. In front of our friends. You’re my wife!’ but Elizabeth said nothing.

    She didn’t seem to be ashamed or humiliated by this turn of events. She just fell over in a heap and passed out after she threw up on the grass in front of the house.  

*

‘Let’s check your fingernails for dirt, Hannah-banana before we go inside, lay the table and wash up for supper.’

   ‘Dirty fingernails mean no supper.’ Hannah looked at Ming with tears building up in her eyes at the thought of not eating the lasagne that had just come out of the oven.

   ‘I didn’t mean it Hannah-banana. I didn’t mean it.’ Hannah let out a bloodcurdling scream.

   ‘Oh, what am I going to do with this child. She’s impossible.’

   ‘You wanted to have a daughter.’ Bianca called from the kitchen.

*

Ming was the one who took care of Hannah and Bianca on holiday. She sometimes thought about all the children in the world who did not have mothers and fathers. Who did not have the family that Hannah had but then she went on with her day. Ming was happy. She was happy in her own way. She had never felt more alive. She still prayed but she didn’t go to church anymore. Bianca was an atheist.

    They both decided when the time was right that Hannah could make her decision about religion and which church she wanted to attend.

*

They watched the bonfire on the beach. Flames licking the logs. The stars in the night sky. The wedding dance in the church hall had been an absolute blast. Whoever had catered the wedding was a genius, Bianca had whispered in Ming’s ear as she took her by the hand and led her to the dance floor.

   ‘Remember our day?’ Bianca mouthed to Ming. They couldn’t hear each other above the music.

*

Every day was starting to feel like summer again. That year they were planning on driving down to Oyster Bay. Renting a house by the beach.

   Eating steak, ribs, potato salad and macaroni and cheese every night of the week just because they could. Spaghetti dinners. Italian. Home-made gnocchi. Bianca was a very good cook.

  She was the chef in the house. The grown-ups (Bianca and Ming) would drink sparkling wine and ciders. Stay up the whole night until the early hours of the morning talking.

  It felt as if her skin was burning where Bianca touched Ming. So, Priscilla had married Chaz. The day had gone off without a hitch. Bianca was sleeping. The wedding photographs were so-so.

   Ming got out of bed and made her way to the study. Switched on the light. She wanted to look at the photographs that she had taken on her trip to Graaff Reinet.

  She was hunger. Thought Ming to herself as she looked at the photographs that she taken the days that they had spent in Graaff Reinet with her Nikon camera.

   This hunger had taken her all over Africa spreading the gospel. Ming stared at the sleeping Bianca, slipping quietly next to her in the bed. Ming wasn’t tired yet.

   She put the light on and opened a book. NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names. Thought to herself that in her country, Ming’s World, there is the aftermath of silence in which all feelings are born. Flight.

   Weakness. Limitations. Blaming people. There’s also love. You will find at the awareness of skin meeting skin there’s the meeting-point of the fabric of the universe.

   Translations waiting to be discovered. Conversations just waiting to be had. She thought of the most important people in her life. Bianca, her life partner, her soulmate, their daughter Hannah.

   Tomorrow would bring with it more translations waiting to be discovered. Conversations at the breakfast table over marmalade toast and chamomile tea with lemon and honey.

   It is not being in love that gives you the time of your life or a set of keys to freedom. Love comes with translations of the body, spirit and spirituality.

   Love comes with the spare change in your pocket when you are making a phone call to your beloved or lover.

   And when you discover holes in in the reality of your relationship you simply realise this. That you are not perfect and neither are relationships. You have to work at it.

   Bianca turned over in her sleep. Her sensuous mouth open. Breathing in and out deeply. Ming crept into the hollow space that she had left behind and closed her eyes.

 ***********************************************************************
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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