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An excerpt from a memoir
I wish he had the guts to smack her. Really get into it with her and give her one. Leave an imprint of his hands against her face. I wait to see his nails cutting into her throat like a shard of glass; splintering off. I want her to feel like I do; wandering without a country, a tightly wired heart webbed within spiders of veins. As if I was finding myself amongst rocks on a deserted beach pressing my finger into the sand leaving a memory behind as if it is written in blood, a masterpiece in the sun, tugging the horizon down that competes daily with the sunrise at the breaking of dawn and the sunset at twilight.
Does she ever feel lonely as I do? The silence is dead in the rooms of our house, made up of impoverished ghosts, their voices clanging like the sailing song of a windchime in the wind through orphaned autumn leaves grounded in my head. She frustrates me like a blue fly I cannot swat, gut or trap. I cannot pull its wings off; disguise my frustration in a plume of smoke like my younger brother and his friends. My father and I have retreated to our room that we now share. I lay sprawled out on the single bed watching him sleep. My mother sleeps in my sister’s room now. She sleeps enshrouded in the dark under the dense cover of blankets over her head. Her door is closed.
I cannot regenerate the hate they now have for one another into love. Their separation leaves me feeling quiet, depressed, filled with rage, desperate. Where is God in all of this? He is fading away. I am fading away like the bad wolf or the evil, wicked witch in a fairytale or Oz. My eyes water all the time. Is it tears or because I am so sensitive. She smells of perfume when she goes to church. There’s a splash of colour in her hair. She wears her open-toed high heels. This minx then smoothes her hair with her hairbrush, pats stray curls down and then leaves us. How to get out of this mess? I begin to dream of better days.
I wished I had apologised sooner and said I was sorry over some childish, petty thing. Wished I knew that at some point in our lives loneliness for everyone is an internal rhyme. I watch other women and magnify their heart, their softness and try to imprint it on my mind but to no avail I always fail miserably at this quiet, quick game with its fluid movements as if I was in some dance or ballet. I come out like some cutout of a paper doll with no machinery, as if I have plastic limbs and the missing pieces of me or who I should be become more apparent. I was not trained. My mother, you see kept the rituals of being and becoming a woman to herself. I could not fathom her and in return she could not fathom me so we were both at a loss for words for years. In our lives there were many endings, brick walls, hot, burning bridges, footprints in the sand (she walked ahead while I trailed in her wake even as a child, our relationship while I was an anxious adolescent) whole conversations that ended in shrieking, shouting and screaming that led us to believe we were both flawed in some way. Only in the thick water of a swimming pool could I gauge my own strength. Here I fled from clarity, from the intent to kill myself with words.
This was my escape from suffocation, my parents and my younger, troubled siblings. This was how I measured my superstitions surrounding death and the scores that came from tests. I gauged it with each stroke to the opposite side as I leaned and curled my body into each wave and pushed off away into the distant simmer. There was no scraped, skinned knee that drew fresh, raw blood on a school playground when I was just a kid, just the euphoria I had writhing like a worm, wavering within me when I saw mist outside. It was almost heaven in the water. I busied myself with other writers and poets words and made a home away from home with them. I climbed the tall walls of castles, made myself sick, grew bored with life at an indeterminate speed and then I grew up. Silly me; thought the hole in my head, the void in my heart would fill.
That it would never leave me vulnerable again. I never thought growing older, ageing would mingle with melancholy. Didn’t anyone ever tell you that living in a circus can make you mentally ill, turn you into an alcoholic, make you anxious, have panic attacks as if the world as you knew it would come to an end leaving you wild-eyed, startled and dead inside even though your heart was pumping, lungs in tow; even though you were still left breathing. There was no divorce. There was talk of it though late at night with a suitcase in tow, hushed voices almost whispers. In the morning all the evidence of the previous night was gone.
The incriminating suitcase was all gone and so was the talk of divorce; a short-lived separation, the hours I lay awake listening to them breathing. I knew my mother’s love was pure, haunting and precious. I knew she needed him as much as he needed her. It left me older than my years, wanting, needy, seeking the Alps or claiming Everest, waiting on her love like waiting on Kilimanjaro like a sweetheart. I wanted to pin her down to the floor as she made mush out of all of us singing a string of curses, spraying us with her vitriol and spit. Now my brother smokes and the smoke spreads itself thin in the air. My sister paints portraits of other people. I wish it was self-portraits.
Maybe then she’d learn something of what truth means and understand, accept it. Accept what an unhurried family life means instead of being some sort of singed experiment, a guinea pig squeezed into someone else’s Pandora’s Box, beside the knife-in-my-back, beside every heinous sin, every envious fledgeling packing their own ammunition for room. My heart bleeds for her; my sister. I understand her brave front. Meanwhile my brother caved in and drowned. I swallow mouthfuls of blood. There is dirt under my fingernails from trying to dig our way, the four of us, out of this, this underground mess while she, my mother remains elegant and a looker. The air would ripple. How my mother could cause waves without much effort on her part.
How nothing could save us from her belligerence. I wish someone would say, ‘Stop. They have all suffered enough.’ That that statement would be omnipresent, that it would be more than enough to see us through.
The burning light like the yellowed sunlight streaming through the windows, the closed curtains, the bedroom walls that seemed to talk by themselves as if I was hallucinating, the door that stood ajar. All of that was gone. There was no divorce.
I wanted her very badly to exist. When she was cruel I kept quiet and was intimidated. When she was cruel she taught me to be cruel too, to reduce people to smithereens, to teach them that they were unworthy and bomb their self-esteem. There was always the intent there to be cruel, to be forward, to march on nonetheless and blow them all away as if they were nothing. She taught her children well because in all of us a cauldron of this now exists as adults. We don’t mean to be mean or nasty, indifferent, aloof, make thinly veiled threats it’s just the sum of our parts.
As if people; they meant nothing at all. You see, I could say all of this was her fault but I know deep down that I am to blame for having no one on my side all the time, for feeling empty, lost and vacant even at this stage of my life. I am to blame for cutting them all out. Life is pretty uneventful and quiet. I don’t like noise. There was so much of it when I was growing up. There were tears and of course as I said before there was talk of divorce and there had been separations but only for weeks. It was important that you – the reader know at least this; that they reconciled. She taught me language, wrote whatever she felt intensely in her clever head on my canvas.
The layers are there now in mysterious detail built into, stored in my personality. There are some memories which cannot be accounted for; that is not as rare as you might think in households where there has been abuse. The rush of the emotional, the physical so cunning, so interlocking, so subtle, so inventive, so compelling cutting through the bare bones of cloth, of age, of faith, of race, of nationality. I will never forget her. Her hair dyed rust-red. I will never forget her. I must invent my own language now, tread gently where angels fear to tread, grow children who will mind their manners, raise them beautifully before they get locked into coffins.
I will never forget her. The pearls of wisdom torn from her mouth that was bedazzling like seeing the shine on the flesh of a fish shuffled through the air like birth pangs, the complicated joy that she revealed in kinder moments and the joy that removed me from the edge. I can remember her standing in the kitchen making breakfast in her gown and slippers before she got dressed for her job as a teacher; her hands around a lukewarm cup of coffee making peanut butter or tuna fish sandwiches for our school lunches. My parents were not a bad fit from the start. They were good people. Kind people. Not the kind of people who had people over all the time for cocktails or drinks or dinner parties with the men getting grabby, slurring their words and falling asleep in their chair in the family room.
I will never forget her leaning across the kitchen table, magically bypassing all breakfast dishes, clipping my sister’s ear leaving an imprint of her hand behind and my sister’s shriek that fell on my head like the pinprick of a blister. Believe me, I will never forget that. Our childhood was far from ordinary. Our survival of it was extraordinary. Others succumb. Others get lost in addictions, in eternal damnation, in a sticky demise of a taste of their own private hell, in death.
We just moved on dragged kicking and screaming, acclimatised to my parent’s forest of unconditional love, eyes shut onto the world, moving into the human condition too deeply rooted to feel barely unsettled or restricted by anything. The images of mother and father, sister and brother were cracked. This was the space we were given and we took it gladly because it comforted us in our hour of need; even now. We didn’t need words or rituals or walks on the beach. We needed each other and this we only realised when we were grown up too old for tantrums, shouting tirades and salty tears.
We were family, loyalties divided or not and although we felt empty and tired of life sometimes the proof was there that we were made from better stock than that. We were people that came from the sea, hair dewy, eyes bright and sparkly, hands bejewelled by the ocean and heels encrusted with sand. We were mermen and mermaidens. We were washed clean as we emerged into the chilly air from the sea or the pool, shower or a bath, with Wordsworth, Keats, an invented line of commiseration and defeat. A purified bunch waterproofed. We had nothing to lose but our hearts to sorrow and at the end of it all we fled like runaways, like mewling cats, half-starved cast adrift as if we were stark naked; as if we were madcap streakers racing across a green.
My siblings began their journeys in their twenties and me in my thirties. My mother was no longer there to tell us what to do, what to say, how to respond to strangers questioning us but they loved her like I did, they tolerated her like I did with patience. They buried their heads when heads had to be buried. It was always about money. Peeling away across the skies, feet bare, grounded I held shells up to the blue sky. Their bare bones fragile, delicate to the touch; they lay smooth in my hand. Curled, covered with the smell of the sea breeze, of hundreds of thousands of years. The taste of salt in the hole of my mouth and I yelled at her to wait for me.
But she never turned around. She never looked back. The wind was rough. The tide was high. The gulls overhead swallowed my words. There were a few swimmers that day. We bought ice-cream. The chocolate in the peppermint cone melted quickly licking the edges of the white serviette and making my hand warm and sticky. It was a warm day. A mother was fussing over a baby in a pram. I said this was what a mother was probably like. She tasted sweet; as sweet as sugar in a bag of mixed sweets. Her smell was like talcum powder and when she took you in her arms when you were small you felt safe and protected. I knew my mother. I knew what she looked like, her smell, her taste, the small of her back, the back of her neck.
I knew what her hands felt like as they moved across my shoulder blades, down the ladder of my spine, as she watched her exercise videos and lifted weights. I knew she looked young for age. I also knew she wasn’t shatter-proofed. She wasn’t some stone god. I knew there had been a day when I had made her cry. When she had balled up her hands into fists and slammed the bathroom door in my face. I had seen her wipe the tears from her eyes. I had felt very small that day. There was no place to hide though, God would have found me. I am slowly emptying my head of everything; laying down the gauntlet. There were psychologists but not anymore.
I grew tired of all their trick questions, their blank faces, sheepish grins, coffee cup or clock on the table in front of them marking the minutes until it was all over with gulps and stares. I keep to myself. We all do. It’s a family thing. Now our love travels outwards hoping to meet a mate – a soul mate. When will we finally be free from the chains that hold us back? The answer is simple. It lies within our heart, the folds of the seasons that we have weathered intuitively, our head up, chin up. It does not put itself on display in neon lights all theatrical.
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