On an island – a coveted paradise in the Indian Ocean – surrounded by blue-green relatively calm and tranquil seas is where our story begins. It’s where I believed all love stories began before the war when I was a child. It comes complete with the white sun-kissed beaches that the glossy brochure tells us about. It is an island that comes complete with the hotel with the magnificent and awe-inspiring views. They want to lure us away from our humdrum lives and they succeed in doing so.
This is where I had my honeymoon with my husband before I learnt how really sick my father was. I took scripts with me to doctor.
Let today be the day you note this, my horoscope reads. Ideas are pure invention. They live in a strange self-recreated, self-possessed world and are rivals for paradise. Why can’t they simply tell themselves when they look at a man, a woman and a child that is my brother to the former, that is my sister and that could be my child. The simple truth is that they can’t. War, war, war, men will argue. Where will we be without war, without anarchy, without chaos or intervention or youth?
We would be dead. War moves the soul, tempts it.
We will be godless without religion and sexless without philosophy. Don’t procrastinate, woman, I was taught at school. Go to work, bear your children, fall in love and even think. I didn’t want my child to live in this world – I was too young to have a child - and perhaps it would have been better if she had not been born at all. It is a terrible time to be young during war and it is a horrible way to die – a bullet straight through the head or the heart.
The thing is you don’t know what the final outcome will be of your actions and you can never predict or say that this is the way things should be. You take life come what may. What is the art of accumulation, I asked. I do not know and stop asking me? He answered. Why don’t you ask your students for their expert opinion and their intellectual answers would be the same - the deconstruction of the human race or the art of accumulation?
An old woman with tired eyes sits across from me on the train when I go home that afternoon and I look away quickly. I wonder how I will look when I am old. My skin wrinkled; lines around my eyes and my mouth. Old people smell. They smell of menthol and eucalyptus and Vick’s vapour rub.
It is a terracotta villa on a hill that I had run from so many times as a child being chased or chasing my brother, Fred and my sister, Sylvia madly. It is where with my chin gently resting on my hunched knees I began to write poetry. It did not bring me any joy, or satisfaction. It left me feeling strangely dissatisfied. Why am I sad all the time? I am tired of being so sad. There is nothing else I can feel anymore.
What does anyone do to deserve a bad turn when everything seems to be going so well in your life, like the death of your husband? When your streak of good luck and happiness comes to an unbelievable end? You become jaded but just as that happens suddenly something occurs that restores your faith in the lousy, pathetic human condition. I have not felt that way in a very long time and no occurrences have taken place in my life. You become resigned to your station in life.
Music filled our house. The laughter of a child, my brother’s ingenuous anecdotes, our parents love for each other and for us. Fast forward a few years, my sister is talking in the kitchen. My father is dying in the back room, which fills with sunlight in the late afternoon. It is a room filled with abundant wildlife and endless plains in pictures on the walls. It is a remote area. My mother is the dutiful and devoted wife as ever. He is bathed every morning at precisely ten o’ clock, fed, read to and spoken to by the clock. He can’t speak anymore. His mouth struggles to form words and to contain his excitement. He called himself a bedridden old fool; a ghost. It makes me sad to see him like this. I read poetry to him. My father has loved poetry all his life. He was an English teacher.
We all have our own children now and have settled down with families. Sylvia’s brood is famous. They have appeared on television in advertisements for toothpaste, crackers and cream soda. There are four of them; two boys, Randall and Kendall and two girls, Audrey and Loreley. They are ten, eight, six and five respectively.
Fred has a son called Vernon. ‘A monk.’ Remarked Sylvia unkindly, once but without any humour, warmth or affection. He was not loud and rowdy like Randall and Kendall. Vernon will help his grandmother, staying constantly by her side. He dries the dishes carefully and slowly until it shines. His mother was like that as well. Quiet, distant and polite. Sylvia has only one word for it. ‘Standoffish.’ Fred was always the clown growing up but he is different now; changed since the accident. He still has a youthful demeanour.
We are waiting for my father to die. He has pancreatic cancer. We watch him with care. It is the beginning of winter. Strains of Debussy can be heard. My mother has begun to play him his much-loved music. It has become a ritual every afternoon.
‘Boring, boring. Is the old man snoring?’ Randall says. Audrey claps her hands over her ears. When my father rests in the afternoon, the music is turned down.
‘That’s a mean thing to say Randall. Why did you say that?’ Sylvia admonishes and scolds, kissing him on the reddish-brown curls of his head. He lost his school jersey at the end of term and Sylvia finding herself with nothing to do went to the shops to find a pattern. So far she has accumulated an arm and the front. She is defiantly practical.
The mantelpiece was covered with photographs, covering every conceivable family gathering and birthday. Randall’s was the most prominent.
'Where are my two loud boisterous boys?’
My mother has never encouraged revenge in any of her children and for that I am sure is one quality of my mother’s that we are all grateful for. I remember a story my mother told us as we were growing up. Sylvia is telling it to her children.
‘That’s a dumb story.’ proclaims Randall. ‘That’s a dumb, glum, by gum, numb, dumb, dumb, dumb story.’ He screeched.
‘Shush.’ Sylvia reproached him.
‘Shush.’ Said Randall.
‘You getting broody yet?’ my sister asks with expectation. I am perfectly happy alone, I retort and once upon a time I would have said, ‘We are.’
‘You’re not.’ She says with an air of aggrieved status and entitlement.
‘Are you happy with your life?’ I ask her to which she always replies, ‘I am, I am perfectly happy. This is what I have always wanted.’
He has drawn his last breath. His body lies still. I feel the beginnings of the onslaught of grief.
‘Open the curtains.’ My mother orders and I obey. She does not begin to mourn his passing. Sylvia – the second daughter, the daughter who felt that she was always being passed over in the family circle - begins to weep. Her body shudders with sobs. Her grief is neither personal nor private. She is grief-stricken and when she rises she hardly says a word but is enfolded by her husband’s arms and she retreats to her childhood bedroom.
Her grief is heartfelt. It is shared by all of us in different ways. I draw the curtains open.
‘Muddy waters. There’s a snail. The snail’s faster than Maude is. Maude’s slower than a snail.’ Randall and Kendall begin to laugh. Kendall puts his hands on his side and bursts out laughing. Maude pulls her tongue out at him.
‘Grandfather is dying.’
‘Death, dying, died, dead.’
We take the children to the park. Randall and Kendall run ahead. Audrey and Maude stay with us.
‘I feel sad, mummy.’
‘Come and look at this, Maude.’ Audrey called to her. Maude let go of Sylvia’s hand and ran to where Audrey was standing.
They began to strike poses in front of a tall oak as if they were models. Kendall imitated them rudely.
There are no photographs of my mother when she was a girl. I have never asked her about this because I am sure she will evade the question and subtly avoid it. I know her only as a mother. The person I have known since birth. To my knowledge she has spoken very little of her parents. I have never known them. They died before I was born.
My father was always singing when we were younger. At church, he would sing hymns with a deep, rich voice. At home, he would, when requested at family gatherings and birthdays he would belt out Elvis. My mother’s nickname for him was ‘Elvis Love.’ He sounded like him.
He was transformed when he sang into the singer in Vegas with perfectly coifed hair, glistening with pomade, the suit cut just so with perfect creases and sharp corners at the ankles. You would say that I lost faith in my belief in progress and my sense of direction when I saw them dancing together, laughing and smiling. Later, they did an Arthur Murray course together.
I am the prodigal daughter, my mother has remarked on more than one occasion with us all in attendance. I wonder what the significance is, or if there is any, of me working on a trilogy. It is only my hobby. My late husband’s hobby was his restaurant. He was always a sensational cook and came up with the most brilliant ideas. We had only been married for a year when a robbery took place at his restaurant and he wanting to be the hero and protect a pregnant woman who was a patron there got shot and wounded fatally in the process.
Sylvia has found an old music box filled with letters from old boyfriends. We are alone in the house, aside from my father who is resting. My mother has gone shopping. Today Fred has volunteered to take the children to a circus to relieve them all of the boredom of sitting around the house.
‘Look at this one. It’s hilarious.’
Love Elvis, Sylvia’s brood’s much loved golden cocker twitched his head in our direction as my sister’s laughter filled the room.
Her trembling subsides. ‘All beauty must die.’
There were ten letters filled with bursts of endearing, eternal proclamations of love. After Sylvia left the room to play Debussy, I found myself re-reading them and looking for clues at what my sister’s personality had been like then. We had never been close or each other’s best friend. In an argument once she said over the telephone that if she had met me on the street she would bypass me with hardly a second glance. I was eleven and she was fourteen.
There was a book as well with a vermilion cover. I opened it and on the front page written in bold letters were the words, ‘This is the book of bad habits, of waking dreams and infinite traces of sadness.’ I recognized the handwriting as my own.
Working gives me both the fortitude to go. Discipline creates self-mastery as well as energy in my life. I enjoy being on the sidelines, hardly cheering just diplomatically overseeing my script. I talk to the crew, drink coffee and observe the lead actors who either gush over their roles or offer suggestions on how to increase their screen time. But what you do is not work, my mother has said time and time again. You travel so much. If I had as much money as you do, I would give it all away. It’s a sin. You’ve been to all the sin cities in the world. You’ve been to America. Johannesburg. Las Vegas. New York. I don’t know why you wanted to study there in the first place. Then she talks about Africa and then education and then schools.
‘Coffee?’ Maggie asked her leading man on the set.
He held out his cup to her and she filled it to the brim. It spilled slightly and she caught the drops deftly with a saucer. The actor who is playing her husband glances at her and it is then that she realizes that her gown is too revealing. His hair is dark and wet at the nape of his neck.
‘What would you like to do for your birthday?’ he takes a guttural gulp of coffee. He looks through the newspapers on the table, selects one and then takes a section out to glance through it.
‘What about that movie, your friend was telling us about?’
‘Indra, wasn’t that his name?’
‘I don’t know. I can’t remember.’
‘You’re not listening are you?’
‘Hmm? Did you read this? Do you want me to read it out loud? It says here, ‘Someday humanity will surpass technology… You’re not listening?’
‘I am.’ Came her voice from the kitchen.
From somewhere my voice yells out ‘cut’.
I wished to be loved and when I was, I never appreciated it. I took it for granted every single day.
I was listening to my sister on the telephone.
‘Sometimes I think he must get so tired of it. The vices, the money, the women, the sex. God, that was all there when I was still working in the industry. When you are young all that you want is a career and when you grow up all that you want to be is a mother and a homemaker.’
When you leave, I told him, I’ll jump off the roof. He laughed. Michael never took me seriously and I never meant it, not even when I was standing at his grave. ‘Anne, people are resilient. It’s been part of human nature since the beginning of time.’ He was always happy-go-lucky. People were always drawn to him, especially women. My sister said at the time, ‘He can see it a mile away. You are the desperate, clingy type. Needy and men like that are always attracted to those qualities. It won’t mean that he will never stray but it does mean that if you are long-suffering and are prepared to look the other way he will always come back to you like JFK and Jackie O.
My sister never minced words or held anything back sometimes. My brother and I nicknamed her ‘Snake’.
‘What comes after the perfect love and happiness? The babies. What then? Where do you meet Polish counts of the marrying kind, we used to ask each other, remember?’ I blinked.
‘Who are you writing to?’ Sylvia asked suspiciously when she came into the kitchen. I am 16 and she is 20.
‘No one.’ I answered, blushing slightly. She glanced at the papers I was trying to shield from her inquiring gaze. I tried to regain my composure and placed the papers untidily into the book I had been writing in. It was only a letter to my Danish pen pal.
There was so much truth and beauty in what you said. In everything you said. I am actually starting to imagine what you look like in people I pass in the street. I thought we would write to each other and then we don’t meet until we are old. I do not know what you would think of the idea. I wrote a whole lot of letters to Marc (my best friend) filled with remorse, love. I never sent any. You’ll probably be able to bring everything you’ve lived, felt, experienced to your writing – I don’t know but I must have asked you this – is there another aspect of film you were interested in. You told me you had epic stories in your head.
I am talking to my sister on the telephone.
‘Everyday around the world divorce statistics are rising. Individuals emerge from broken homes with a stigma attached to the relationships they forge in their later lives. People don’t choose to be married, their marriages choose them.’
I nod, I murmur.
‘Divorce is a selfish prerequisite for adults. What are the children compensated for by losing their family, love and care in a stable environment where they are nurtured and loved? The parents own happiness is placed before the child. Then they wonder why their children aren’t happy. It’s a relentless cycle that I want to protect my children from. We do love each other but love can never compensate for everything.’
Oliver, my sister’s husband is dominant, aggressive and moody. I try and stay out of his way as much as I can. I am not feminine enough for him.
Russell and Loreley are both sitting on his lap and he is telling them how he and my sister met and fell in love. They both sit on a knee and look up at him. They made love this morning. I could hear them through the bedroom door.
The moon is lunate. Crash! The harsh, clanging sound of metal grinds against my eardrums. What was that? A strange cat emerges. Its ovoid eyes are lambent in the dim light of the street.
‘Meow.’ It says lugubriously. It begins to lick itself and wash itself. Lick, lick, and lick.
Thud-thud-thud. Shooting the film has to be its own reward. How it lives into release, production and other people’s perceptions is another story. It does not concern me anymore. The making of a film has unorthodox rules.
Blackened clouds gather overhead, while rain threatens. If you can’t stand the heat, hit the showers, Sebastian, our handsome, elegant lead says.
‘If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.’ Aah, the wise Hemingway.
It is not yet half past seven in the morning. Oliver is making coffee and he wants to know if I would like some. I say yes even though I do not usually drink coffee. I sit at the kitchen table and watch him make the coffee.
‘God, I hate that music. Classical, why not anything else?’ he confessed to me one afternoon. Randall was an aeroplane. He was making a crash landing. I was trying to save Sylvia’s dropped stitches.
Maude came into the room carrying a well-thumbed book and pages stapled together with paper clips. There was a page missing, so Oliver had to make up that part of the story.
Maude said, ‘Read to me.’ He picked her up and they lay side by side on the couch. Maude was tucked into the crook of his arm.
I am at a party. I don’t know anyone here. I am trying to disappear into a corner behind a pot plant before the hostess finds me. Perhaps it is only because I have just arrived and can’t seem to recognise anyone among the crowd. I eavesdrop on other people’s conversations. It has been a year and a half since Michael’s passing.
There is a woman standing near me. She is talking very loudly. She is saying to the man standing next to her, ‘Je me souviens. It was Malagra, Spain. He took me there after the birth of his first child. We drank dark, mulled red wine and bred like dogs in the heat. Governments would have fallen like flies and we would not have heard or cared. In Paris, the man playing the harmonica on the street corner said, ‘Ah, I can see you are both in love.’ Then he thanked us both profusely as I praised his music; he did not accept the money I pressed into his hand. Coins rained the Metro that day.’
I am hoping no one will notice me.
‘Come and talk to Anne. She’s come alone.’ Everyone else is paired off.
It was a mistake to have come. I could see that now. Later that evening I telephoned the airline and booked a ticket. Sometimes I begin to think of myself in the second person.
‘Love is meaning enough to exist.’
‘The characters are difficult, conquering personalities. Clashing, loving…’
‘He was reading Sartre’s Nausea, sitting on a dirty park bench. It was dreary weather.’
‘Existence or being.’
‘Being or existence. They would be two very wonderful things akin to the very stuff life is made of if only we could make sense of things.’
‘My cat is dead.’
‘Darling, you do say the most comforting things.’
So I passed the evening listening to snatches of conversation.
The Belvedere Palace’s walls were stucco and white. Naples darkened, blackened streets filled with street singers. All I wanted was to go home.
Vernon is my favourite. He is watching me from the doorway, with his tired, sad brown eyes. He leans against the frame. He has a loose page in his hand. His dark brown hair is long at the nape of his neck. He was wearing a pair of black jeans and a Mickey Mouse T-shirt.
‘Come here.’ He comes. ‘What is that?’ I ask.
‘Oh, I’ve written something. It’s not important.’ He says. I want to take it from him.
‘What have you written?’
‘Do you want me to read it to you?’
What do children do to deserve this? Perhaps it is nothing at all; simply this; consequence. He lost his mother and my brother lost his wife. Old things become replaced by new. There is nothing temporary about it.
It is too cold to swim. It’s raining and the wind is up. Oliver and Sylvia have driven into town to see a film. Fred and I are playing rummy. He shuffles the cards and deals them. Vernon is busy.
‘Confessions, I see.’ says my mother.
A few minutes before Fred had been standing in the study looking up at the racks of bookshelves against the wall.
‘Hello, Fred.’ I kiss his cheek.
‘How is Vernon?’
‘You know Vivian has left me.’
‘Then there’s nothing more left to say is there?’
‘He must be missing her.’
‘Every child misses an absent parent but she was absent when she was present in a way also. She neglected him. She abandoned his needs for her own. She was gutless.’
The accident had come as a complete surprise to all of us. Vivian’s car had been hit from behind by a driver who rode away after the car spun into an embankment and then hit a tree. She was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. Vernon came to stay with his grandparents for awhile and Fred went away.
Fred could always be cold, secretive and indifferent when he wanted to be. I didn’t want to choose sides. Vivian had never been friendly towards me. We had always been civil. She was aloof, guarded when it came to relationships with Fred; her husband’s family and beautiful. She was very glamourous; her nails always polished red, as sharp as claws, her mouth a glittering line; her clothes expensive labels. When she left my brother I breathed a deep sigh of relief. I felt she did not, could not have the sensitivity to understand him or her son who was so much like his father – an introvert.
To an artist years mean nothing. You do not measure time with a clock or a watch; weeks or days go by and in solitude you either create or you go slowly mad from the loneliness.
I regarded myself as an artist. I regarded my family sometimes as fakes; they were always seeking newer identities and the children aped the grown ups. But my mother encouraged me. She recognised my potential. She was the only one in the midst of heated arguments between me and my sister, primitive abnormality in the household, saturated happiness amongst the children and even my siblings and dysfunctional family relationships; I found her to be sincere and as authentic and uncompromising as my eternal words on paper.
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