••• The International Writers Magazine: Moving On
Moving into the Salvation Army
‘Do you smoke?’ Gus blew the smoke out of his mouth.
‘Impressive what you can do with a cigarette. No, I don’t smoke.’ Julia wrapped her legs around the beach chair on the grass at the Salvation Army, shivering.
‘Do you drink?’
‘Compared to you, I’m a sinner. Have you ever had a boyfriend?’ Julia blushed. ‘You’re on fire, babe.’
‘Why all the questions?’
‘I like you.’
‘But why, you don’t even know me.’
‘You’re Julia from Port Elizabeth. You’re quiet and shy and lovely. I know you. Don’t you want a boyfriend?'
‘Well, you can ask me anything you want. About a boyfriend, I don’t know, hey.’ Julia laughed again, self-conscious.
‘I guess then you’re not partygoing either.’ Julia laughed.
‘Does it show?’
‘It doesn’t matter to me. Self-confidence matters to me. Do you want to smoke with me?’
‘Everybody coughs the first time. There’s a first time for everything, isn’t there.’ Julia blushed again, acid building up in her throat.
Julia knew about closing doors on the past. Uncertainty flowed through her veins like harsh winter sandwiched between skyline and breath. Loving. Johannesburg was a textual paradise to her. She began to imprint the city landscape on her subconscious. Clicks for toiletries. Cafes for lunch. She felt sensitive and brave as she stood outside the gate. Older. Wise. This was the road out. It was months before she would be kissed under moonlight at the Salvation Army. Her feet seemed to touch the unfamiliar-cooing-birdsong. Her hair was unkempt from her bus ride from Port Elizabeth. From the sea of her childhood. In Johannesburg there was no sea. Landlocked borders were found there. She felt as if she was drifting. Like the wind and everything around her seeming fractured.
She met Gus at the Salvation Army. He was funny and warm and sweet. They would make out sometimes on the stairs in the dark with flashes of hurried movements before the lights went out. Every time Gus touched her, notching her flesh, it felt as if she flowed from dark light into the millions of stars all around them. She grasped at Gus’s charms and charisma. His confident swagger that seemed so ghostly and ethereal. Not of flesh. In Gus’s arms childhood came to an end. In Johannesburg Julia told herself she would have stamina, a dancer’s legs and a dancer’s build. She would have dedication, motivation and discipline. She would make friends at film school. She would laugh. She washed her hair in the basin using egg shampoo. Dipped her head under water.
As she stepped onto the bus in the early evening in Port Elizabeth to make the long trek to Johannesburg, the introspective blue light seemed commanding. Ordering the absurd, tragic and even the unusual in the films they played on the bus. She lost herself in the dialogue. She owed the world nothing and the world owed her nothing. She thought of the obstinate fools in parliament playing with fire. Playing with dominoes made out of flint and coconut husk. Kindness did not matter there. She thought of all the ‘madness-experts’ that she had been introduced to in her life as the bus (with all of its passengers asleep) passed Cookhouse, then Middelburg, then Bloemfontein. How all of those supposed ‘madness-experts’ mapped out her world.
She never did make those friends at film school. She worked hard all the time and that more than anything else that seemed to alienate her from everybody else. It was a real winter’s day. Gusts of fingers of wind picking up little by little. Spreading itself around her in the environment. At home, her mother was cleaning out the fridge with vinegar water. Her father was resting in bed. The light gathering around his diabetic frame. Her sister was in Prague on holiday. Her brother in rehab. She longed for hands to run up and down her back. Hands that would send chills through her and her response to that would be that her heart would race and she would find it difficult to breathe. She had always found grief attractive especially in the morning. Tears would fall like a waterfall.
‘Hit me. Hit me and just get it over with.’ Julia was clenching and unclenching her fists. Biting her bottom lip. She also wanted to say. I’m your sister. Why are you doing this to me? Why do you hate me so much but the words never left her mouth.
‘No. That would be too easy. I don’t want you to hate me. I want you to fear me. I don’t know how many times you’ve heard this in your life but go sit down woman, I’ll deal with you later. Please don’t cry.’
‘I’m not crying. I’m not crying.’
‘You’re crying. Okay, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to talk to you that way. It’s just that sometimes you test me. You test me, can you at least try and understand it from my point of view.’
‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry I made you angry.’
‘Why are you apologising. I’m the one who nearly hit you.’
‘You’ve never done it before.’
‘The thing is I was on the point of violence. Do you know what that makes me feel inside?’
‘It’s my fault. I didn’t wash the dishes. I’m sorry.’
‘What do you have to be sorry for? You can’t even stand up for yourself. You shouldn’t be taking this from me. Why are you taking this from me? Don’t you have any self-confidence?’
‘Yes, yes, you’re right. I don’t have any self-confidence. I’m sorry.’
‘Stop saying you’re sorry. Stop saying that. Just stop, Julia.’
She stepped into her room at the Salvation Army. Began to make up her bed with sheets that were provided. It was going to be a cold winter. She wants to move but she’s never experienced a winter so cold before, so she sits on the bed staring at her roommate’s empty bed. Gay Caroline who was at a prayer meeting in another woman’s room at the Salvation Army. She stares at the wall. Then out of the windows. Then at the empty bed again. The wall. Then out of the windows again. There’s a chest of drawers. There’s a cupboard. Julia wonders what she will put in the drawers first. Her underwear or her dresses. Her skirts or her shoes. She pulls out the portable radio out of her suitcase and puts it on. Listening to Tina Turner softly she buries her head in her hands.
Thinks of the old face of Cape Town’s Table Mountain that she could see out of her sister’s flat. Thinks of water vapour and steaming pots whenever she smells rain. Everything smelled different when it rained. Thinks of her childhood, camphor, the smell of incense burning and Vicks. She wondered if it would snow this winter in Johannesburg. Feeling sandwiched between hardship and despair, Julia thinks of her anger towards her brother and his violence towards her. It was essential that she could make it here on her own. Failure was not an option. The bus ride back home to Port Elizabeth was not an option. She still had to fall in love. Wait for that echo to implode in her heart. That moral alphabet. That shark alphabet. That river. There was Gus (an option).
The leaves are abalone. They desire little or no sun today. The earth’s veil and garment are wet through. No family structure of stars, sun or moon required. The sweetness of night falling all around Julia. Such is nature. The television said that Namibia is like a time machine. Such is the nature of loving. The spark of life. It comes with the observations of a lifetime gathered there. Smoke holy. Men and women holier than thou. Julia thought to herself that filmmaking could also become an art. That she could also become a filmmaker but documenting real life. She used to be as thin (before the madness) as a model from a catalogue. Near the end of her life, she wants to live as near to the sea as possible.
So, she could wake up each morning with her soul marked with water. Winter too comes with a map. In a future life, when she is wife, lover, mother, she will have to give of herself first to the children before anything else. When it cries or wants to be fed. Julia had reading hands. Gus’s mouth was a storm river mouth. He was a leap of faith that she needed to take into the wild. Julia thinks of her father’s great depression. Other women that she meets in the city as she crosses the pedestrian crossing in the mornings on her way to film school. Summon strength from the marrow of your bones. There are days when it will make you invincible. Julia is making notes on Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. This reminds her of when they visited her father at the clinic.
How she played with her siblings not far from where her mum sat, talking to their father. Enthralled by rock, paper, and scissors. A make-believe fire made out of sticks and stones that can’t break bones but soon they all will have to say their goodbyes. They wave. Julia thinks that everything is fine. Dad kisses mum’s cheek but inside his head there’s turmoil. He spends days here eating soul food, seeing a psychologist, a psychiatrist (what they call a ‘shrink’ in America) and an occupational therapist. Years later Julia remembers how she broke the stained glass that had her name on it. The ones her father made for her brother and sister. She knew in retrospect that in the end it had made her father sad. Now she gathers to herself (her ‘Switzerland’).
The cold, her rouge, her creamy lipsticks (her makeup is the first to go). Her future pans, ingredients, her kitchen cupboards, next her future sons and husband are the next to go. She is gifted. Her father said so. Past teachers but Masepeke, (her lecturer at Newtown Film and Television School), says she says intense and will soon lose the weight. Julia thinks waves are her companions. Dips her head under water, tastes salt, brittle and tears. The appearance of chronic illness is not unexpected at this point in her life. The origins of a breakfast at the Salvation Army (of toast, bacon and scrambled egg) on the table stare back at her. Julia shares a table with Caroline and Lennox. She thinks of her father’s depression. Unexpected and disturbing. Meat. The cups of tea she made for him. Julia has advice. ‘You only live once. So, make the most of it.’
She gathers her future wifely things to herself. Knows instinctively that this does not include Gus. Outside at the film school, the guys are all smoking weed and she thinks of her brother and her exit from his life. Tells herself that any artist (in this case a future-filmmaker) is made if you are the type of person to listen very carefully with swift contemplation to the wind that moves through you with her fractured hymn. And it feels as if Julia is about to break, or cross the River Jordan with Moses and the Israelites into the Promised Land. In Julia’s dreams she sees visions of the ‘burning bush’. Everything tastes like honey and milk to her. Improvisations of tenderness and vertigo. Julia decides that she’s a filmmaker if she studies the night.
Observes the day. She remembers waking up to and listening to the prayers from the mosque a few streets away in the early hours of the morning in Port Elizabeth. Life is what you were made for, Julia tells herself. Life is what you made for. To owl-survey the stretch of land that Julia’s mother calls ‘garden’. Her brother calls ‘sanctuary’. That Julia calls ‘landscape’ and all she can think of is the River Ouse. Virginia Woolf’s River Ouse pouring its distillate of salt and river into her. The trees are darkening. Gus is crouching, glowing, magnificent, a spark of life, an electric man on wire. Julia has her feet stuck in a cement bucket. Gus climbs on top of her like a mountain. Julia cannot decide if she is adorned mannequin or an abandoned puppet. She thinks of silence.
Her mother’s rosary. How everything is too obliging, too bright or too warm or is it drifting away from her wounded gaze. The matron had warned her about this. About Lennox. This was what Lennox had wanted too (in a way). Julia had complained about Lennox. Lennox was sent away because she had complained and the matron had felt sorry for her. She let the shadow take her in, overwhelm her. The smell of soup, and the bubbles from damp on the peeling wallpaper. She grabbed Gus’s blonde hair. Made a fist. Flowers on the bedspread making chinks in her armour. Julia could think of nothing else but taking photographs of her beloved. Of Johannesburg. She felt spring water but that couldn’t possibly be her. Drowning, she felt she was wearing a bone-costume. Going to an exhibition. Visiting a museum. Then, afterwards, saved.
© Short fiction by Abigail George November 2017
Email address: abigailgeorge79 at gmail.com
Dawid - A portrait of a marriage
‘You don’t touch me anymore, Dawid. We’re living a lie. Our whole marriage is based on a lie. That we still desire each other.’
Bill and Sissy
There were of course things that Sissy had said and did in her short life that she regretted. In the end, didn’t it make her stronger, she often thought to herself.
It’s winter. Johan is writing on his laptop in the kitchen while she’s making coffee. This love affair was finally going to turn into a marriage. This Saturday morning felt as if she was living on an island with her favourite things. Food and Johan.
Come to my house
Elizabeth Light was like any other girl her age. She felt she needed to understand more of the world around her which is why she moved to Johannesburg in the first place.
The Woman in the Photograph
She had never met anyone called Siegfried before. Wondered what he was like when he was a boy being called on in class. Was he teased, mocked, bullied on the playground like she was for her ‘proper’ English?
more life moments