She kickboxed the monumental front gate open, an old habit she had not kicked from her childhood days, when the vertical obstacle regularly challenged her arms replete with books and bags. This metal and mental barrier then erected an illusory protective bulk against the outside world, she reflected. Pushing it open in a vigorous jerk of the leg was also a raging act of childish self-assertion.
She laughed. She could not recall one day when that gate had been locked. It was more than twenty years now since she had last enjoyed this naughty, once reproved, gesture. Flashes of childhood traversed her emotions. It was lightning. It was gleeful agony.
“Dear House, you know how scary you stand, dear, dreaded home whose milky fragrance I used to crave. Permit me to apologize for ever abandoning you, but you sheltered my loved ones until recently. Now they are all gone, I beg you to forgive me for ever believing I could roam the world without you.
You were designed as a fortress in times when blocking flesh-and-blood enemies required the use of stone and metal. Now, the enemies lurk along electronic flows, invisible, often undetectable. Your massive body was not constructed to face the viral load of present stakes, but you still are a sentinel. You are still immensely beautiful, like a vessel of time floating on today’s world. You are ancient enough to feel like a time-smile that will deride our futile activities. You are my stone cradle, the very reverse of the stone tomb that awaits me in a yet undefined place. Even muted by the absence of my parents, you are a denial of death. You speak a thousand languages of existence in the lives of those who have filled you with their days and nights. Your new silence feels no duller than the events you sheltered under your garment of stone.
You are totally devastating. And totally soothing.”
She inboxed the text to her editor. He’d better feel good about it, because I mean every word, she muttered to herself, who was staring at her in the mirror above the kitchen sink.
After abandoning her phone on a stool, she winged the knob of the living-room door for a few seconds as if she caressed an old family jewel. The modulated creaking of the knob, then of the door, had never left her ear. Welcome home, the teeming silence enjoined on her. She settled on a familiar chair, which had generously planned to offer its cramped comfort to her somewhat more generous bottom. What a treat. And what a burden to have to sort out the paraphernalia that had piled up here for three generations…She decided to start by reviving the old Comtoise clock. The nineteen-century mechanism had never failed to catch up with time. It used to harmonise silence. It still did. Visiting dusty cupboards and emptying drawer after drawer curiously brought memories from her recent past to her mind. Trips, encounters, landscapes filed past her mind’s eye, prompted by the age-old souvenirs. These worn out objects already wore her past. No need to revive it. They had grown weary, but were unaltered. Intangible. She felt the urge to fill in the gap between their old, usual selves and today’s realities. They had ignored her life in between, yet she had carried them in her flesh all along.
Roger called: Don’t forget tomorrow’s meeting! I’ll be seeing you at two p.m. sharp. Yes. That meeting…As if decision making belonged to her…
Roger liked to lord it over everything. He hated delegating responsibilities. He very much reminded her of Johann, actually… actually…
She had first met Johann in a restaurant in Victoria Street in Durban. He was savouring a very basic dish the menu enticingly named hoe om smaaklike rys temaak ‘in piece and quiet’, he explained. Not your typical local dish, but he was eclectic in his tastes, and a vegetarian. They were to work together on ‘special’ projects. He proved a reliable colleague. And a pleasant lover. Soon, she had agreed to be taken to Stellenbosch. Wines there were ready to challenge those she enjoyed home, he certified. He was right. She let go of everything. And yes, Bantry Bay turned out to be a romantic week-end haven. The large lounge of their flat led onto a secluded, sun-drenched patio. How about enjoying the swimming-pool? he asked invitingly in his glaringly new swimsuit that Sunday morning before diving into the blue rectangle as graciously as he could. She had obliged. She relished such an unusual relief in her busy life. Yet something in that guy’s behaviour felt strangely…redundant. As if he had previously rehearsed the scene with a few other partners…Their relationship evolved rather smoothly for a while. He happened to be a dedicated collaborator in the firm and an exuberant companion in private. But he often worked long hours at night. She could not really follow suit.
Her time in South Africa still remained a quandary to her. She had kept meeting the wrong people with the right feelings and conversely.
One late evening, Johann bluntly enquired whether she would mind his having other loves in his life in the future.
No. Her mouth spurted out the answer. No.
If this was what was lurking at the back of his mind, what was the point of taking the time to reflect on the situation? If you trust someone, empower this person with your loving care, accompany him/her along toil and dreams, and (s)he still looks askance in a quest for ‘other loves’, why should you stick to that person at all?
The demands of her professional life helped her through. She was soon fortunate enough to find an opportunity to exercise her ‘skilled conscientiousness’ in Britain. Or was it ‘conscientious skills’? Whatever.
Even before her waving him goodbye that evening, she knew he had already forgotten her. His desultory remarks and casual attitude spoke for himself. No flow of emotion, no uncontrolled movement ever betrayed what she would have liked to detect. He spoke the language of self-satisfaction all the way.
Sorry, frightful night. You are not the best councillor tonight. Of course, you want to subdue me, to break me under your three-S-rule: silence, solitude, submission. Of course, you do it again. There is no escaping your despotism, which some purport to be a benevolent one. But which name do you bear in truth? God? Life? Fate? Total Void? Why so much preposterous deception? Why always leave us destitute without even providing the shadow of a reliable compass we might blaze our free trails with? You only grant us impossible choices at best!
In fact, men regularly prove turds in the end. ‘Whatever happens, I’ll never, ever let you down!’: today, the real value of Robert’s words uttered twenty-years ago lies in the twenty-years of silence that stand between then and now. And Johann’s ‘veracious truth’ is worth just as much! Eventually, only the ‘whatever happens’ clause has proved genuinely right. It points to men’s leaving the door secretly open to any possibility life might bring them, away from their promise. Surrendering, night, is out of the question. It pre-empts the existence of a kind entity. So I am left with no other option than submission. Submitting to your no-option diktat means giving up totally to your blind force. This is as good as death.
She had scribbled these words to give vent to her ranting in her journal on parting from Johann, while flying to Europe.
She had stopped in Paris for a week to visit relatives, then reached Brittany by train. This short break had not pacified her mind, but it had given her breathing time before…whatever…
The smooth, six-hour-long crossing to Plymouth had lulled her to slumber. Suddenly the group of French kids got itchy. The ferry had started to slide across the waves and was reversing to enter the port. She was now able to catch of glimpse of Plymouth Sound and the breakwater. Tiny lights were already delineating the coast of Devon in the declining daylight. She spotted the Tamar river whose mouth was known to be filled with now invisible warships. The Hoe was dancing close to the ferry in the dusk. The red and white stripes of Smeaton’s Tower were already fading into obscurity. For a handful of minutes though, an arborescence of clouds painted the sky with candy colours that granted the landscape a freedom flavour.
All the variegations of British life and sacrosanct traditions she again felt ready to melt into. From discoursing on the weather to raving over the royal attractions, from holding forth on the shades of ale to lamenting the miseries of the hospitals. From going into ecstasies over the fragrance of roses to getting stuffed with cones on Sunday afternoons.
She soon discovered that all these delicacies were now rather the privilege of elderly citizens. The work load felt heavy. Busy colleagues. Lofty objectives. Short delays. Being expected to complete the tasks by yesterday was becoming a routine. The dear old magazines dealt more with ‘badass blogs’ or how to become a wingwoman than with the topics of yesteryear… though you could still come across ‘my best sex ever’ column, or pages on how to survive rain on the red carpet to the Emmys. Or when to wear a ‘boob hat’.
Fortunately, good old Sterling kept her company all along. So did a couple that took to inviting her regularly at week-ends. They would take her with them to their ritual walk in the moors. When you air your views on life in the open air, you tread on air, she once told them. Don’t pull my leg this much! Meghan laughed, or I won’t be able to walk back to the car.
Meghan, an ever-smiling secretary, seemed perpetually enamoured of her Ivor of a husband, a retired businessman some thirty years less young than her. She pampered him and worried about his well-being in all circumstances like a son, which he had probably never ceased to be from birth. Ivor was an unobtrusive friend who relished spotting the semi-feral ponies that roamed up there, Tavistock way. He said horses had put his feet in the stirrups of life. He found serenity goggling at them galloping wildly in the quasi bare expanses of Dartmoor. Some spaces, overgrown with bracken, made charmingly evasive havens for his mettlesome pals. The granite outline of the tors further contributed to create an eerie atmosphere. What a resting place…
The only ghost she ever met in those desertic stretches of moorland was her own past. It was just a fleeting, ghastly ghost that dispatched itself back to its Stygian darkness as soon as she became aware of its presence.
The only break she was able to take that year was a short trip to Wales in a rented car with June May. June had a humongous sense of the humorous. She could not be refused a pun. She liked to say she was one sixth of the calendar of her own right thanks to her parents’ choice of her first name. And telling her June May was an august name -when most people hate to hear their names derided – sent her giggling. Sharing the cold wetness of Wales with her had been a refreshing experience.
Most days, work whacked her. Since she lived close to the Barbican, she got used to taking a walk to the Mayflower steps nearly every day at sunset, in the dark and rainy evenings of the late season. Then, the archway to the new world was left to her musing alone. She would stand astride the stone, between the Union Jack and the Star-Spangled Banner, and it would tend to mute her negative mental verbosity. Old world and new world coalesced precisely here. And the uncertain futures the place referred to would fill the atmosphere of Sutton Harbour with both dangerous and thrilling promises. Four centuries after the Pilgrim Fathers’ initial voyage, this place seemed to take her on an initiatory journey to her own cravings. She loved that pier she was moored at, where she could, motionless, depart for imaginary, appealing destinations.
She furthered her chaotic mission in Britain for two years. Then, given the so-called stringency of the economy, she became redundant. In her hope to stave off more potential disasters, she packed up her dreams and left. She departed as she had arrived, close to her recently re-baptized Novemberflower steps. As she watched the coast disappear in the mist, she knew she was getting back to square one, minus all the steps she had attempted and failed to take. That ferry was sailing her to where she had started her life, somewhere on the other side of this Channel. Her mum had mobilised her last orthographic resources to send a letter in which she claimed the attention of her daughter to a serious health problem.
Time to regress more than ever before. Time to become a tardigrade. To withstand the burning injustice of life, the deadly radiations of fate, the desiccating conditions of destiny, the dizziness of total vacuum. To suspend her mental metabolism. But with little hope of resurging alive… She had answered the call without hesitation though. She did have savings to live on for some time. And mum was a top priority.
This worn-looking face and sallow complexion left no doubt about what the dear woman was suffering from. Though she stayed in a retirement home, her mum was obviously ailing and needed assistance, the kind of support only a daughter can bring. It was time to see to her emotional comfort by flicking through the colourful albums of happy moments. The pain and dismay would fade under a tired smile for a moment. It was time to chat her quietly into the dreaded radiotherapy room. To joke her into accepting the protective helmet that made her look like a medieval knight. Then to wheel her to the chemio death row. Time to invite her to playfully ingest the unidentifiable broth that claimed to be a meal. Nothing would ever feel both better and worse than sitting for hours by her music and speaking with her eyes. Operation fortitude was the name that came to their bonded minds when referring to their joint fight.
Mum sneaked out of life one winter morning after falling into a coma for a week.
Only remote friends. No family. No one around.
Emptying her native house of its substance was yet another daring challenge. Probably the most agonizing. Each object carried sparks of identity that refused to be extinguished. Resurrecting every one of them before – in most cases – sending them to the bin kept widening the gap between past and present. Handling them felt like foreshortening existence into death.
She shuffled her way to the first bedroom. Unchanged since childhood. She could trace her first vision of this chimney to the very first second of her quasi-life, when she was only half-expelled from the womb. She was born eyes wide open, her parents had often recalled. She remembered the foetal and fatal mixture of disgust and exhilaration on discovering this pent-up place. And the deep feeling of expectation. The love and fear.
It was then she realized these rigid walls were vectors of souls.
She fumbled around. Three plumpy-bottomed, rosy-cheeked dolls lay entwined in their pram, legs and arms outstretched in a motionless movement that pointed to their long abandonment. In the living-room, all the cupboards were being forced open, eviscerated of their contents, disembowelled of the clothes, toys, books, photos that had once been the vital organs of family life, and the furniture was being dismembered piece by piece by the removal men. Only the stony bones of the house, some of them more than one meter thick, would remain standing. They had survived centuries of man-engineered wars. They had outlived the death of those who had made them alive for generations.
Standing at the very spot where her mum had deposited her into this world, two steps from the empty-eyed dolls, Hélène felt a silence draped in desecration wrap around her. The spirit was going forever. The pain goaded her into shuffling her tired mass to the next bedroom in search of more precious books to rescue from the wreckage. It was then her eyes bumped on the shape stuck on a bottom shelf, there, on the left. Drawing close, she recognised the dishevelled head of a sexless doll the same size as the other three.
The premature dusk of the winter afternoon was already unfolding a shroud of darkness over the room. Frika must have been retrieved from its cupboard ages ago and left to pine over her sorry fate. The doll, whose sweet-smelling plastic could still be detected under the stench of dust, was bare. Not naked. Just bare, as Frika had always demanded to stay. The other dolls had been vested by careful hands with educational interests. But Frika’s smooth chocolate skin had always looked and felt and sniffed too nice to be hidden. The best garment ever.
It was then she recalled Frika had always lived in this room. This doll had never wanted to join the others in the pram or elsewhere. Frika was the doll of another mother and needed a treatment of her own. The other dolls had competed among themselves for food, clothing interests and rival stories. Frika had lived her own person quietly. She had been the one telling stories, bringing sanity into the thick stuff of daily life. This doll needed attention and affection, not care.
It was then Hélène was overwhelmed by a long-distance memory. The darkness of the room enveloped her in a sweet cocoon. And the pupa lay beside her. The room was her own flesh. The room urged her to grab her phone and open her womb to South Africa. So she touched the screen and fumbled for the number. 00 27… to conjure up his name. Answer my call. Please do. If your number is still valid. Is it?
Did you mean it? I mean…when you left me in the airport, you said I needed to be lost to be found. It didn’t make sense then.
You failed to understand that I didn’t want you. He paused. I didn’t want you. I wanted us.
She paused. Suspended. Do you still want to find me?
YOU BET! He howled.
“Ke a go rata… It’s a yes!”
On hearing his whimper of joy and the mingled rumpus of the township around him, Hélène noticed the room’s dark smile. She realized this smile would never cease to illuminate her path after this terminal visit to her native home.
N. B. Ke a go rata: I love you, in Sesotho.
Brigitte Poirson, a former teacher and university lecturer in languages in Franche-Comté (Fr) and England (High Wycombe college, Plymouth and Exeter universities), is also a multiple award-winning writer. She has published eight books, mostly in poetry.
She published two anthologies to promote budding poets, Via Grapevine I and II, in Bloemfontein, South Africa. For the past six years, with WordsRhymes&Rhythm, a Nigerian Publisher in Abuja, she has organized poetry contests (BPPC) leading to monthly awards and culminating with the publication of a paper anthology in December.
Photograph by ArtofEni. Eni is a writer, and visual artist using storytelling, inspired discourse, and performance/art to explore inner dialogue, articulate social and lifestyle practices. Her work is response to experiences of identity, culture and states of being. You can find more at @artofeni or @eni.regal