I love you Bessie Head

I am tired. I look at other women in the ward and I see that they are tired too. It is hot. There is nothing that I can do to escape this intolerable heat. I lie under this sheet in this hospital. The doctor said I should just rest. Close my eyes and try and get some rest. There is nothing else they can do for me. But I have come to this nothing place in this nothing district to get away from my past. This too shall pass. The woman next to me keeps looking at me strangely. Are you God? She asks me. Some days it is, ‘Do you know his son Jesus Christ?’ She has a bible. She refuses to eat. Nobody visits her. Nobody visits me but that is because nobody knows where I am. There are ancient lives under Botswana’s sky. I found when I used to be a journalist in another lifetime when I wrote about people in that distant past there used to be something urgent about it but something unfinished as well. Writing also saved my life, having a child and a man in my life. But the doctors, the nuns here say I will go out of my head if I think that way. They say that everything is for the best now. I can go and sit outside today. It’s a beautiful day. Warm and sunny. Every day there was fruit at the hospital. Yesterday we had mangoes. The mango’s flesh tasted wonderful. It reminded me of my childhood, of my sister, the warmth of a pinch of cumin offered to a supper meal, a country to call my own and the girl I was once. Not like some of those coquettish ones but a unique who suffered from anticipatory nostalgia from one moveable feast that she found from one book to the next. A woman received some avocados in the ward and she shared it amongst her friends. I spooned the ripe olive-looking flesh out of the skin and sucked the threads off my fingers. Beautiful. I asked my doctor for some pages or a notebook and a pen that I could write with. I felt I had something to say when he asked what it was for. Sometimes the heat here in Botswana smells like incense burning. It goes to my head and stays there for ever after. Lovely. Poignant. Fresh. Burning sweetly reminding me of my female intuition. This heat has saved me. It has slowed all the racing thoughts within my head and they’re all within my grasp now.

‘Tell me Bessie do you have any friends here at the hospital. People who you can talk to.’
‘Friends? Tell me what the meaning of that word is doctor. To stay here does not mean it is a permanent residence. I will move on from here as I have done before. It is not good to remain tied down, make bonds with people, and form relationships that will probably only hurt you in the end. I have found that out the hard way. Breaking ties with people oh I’ve done that my whole life.’

And for a long time the doctor and I sat next to each other saying very little. We spoke about the weather and poetry and bananas of all things. Yes of all things in the world we spoke about bananas. Bananas dominated the conversation when we eventually came round to speaking about it.

‘Doctor, are you happy? Are you happy with your life? If you could go back to the past what would you change?’ I ask plaintively.
The doctor looked out into the distance. There was a lovely breeze. ‘Lovely breeze Bessie, don’t you think. You’re very serious this afternoon. What has got you to think so deeply? Are you feeling morose?’
‘Perhaps I am. But there have been times when thinking morose has saved my life. I’ve either stored enough of it away or not enough. And when it comes to those times of not enough I take to my bed, pull the sheets over my head. I don’t need friends. Everybody needs a friend but I don’t believe that people need friends in life. So, are you happy doctor?’
‘Don’t I look happy Bessie?’
‘I don’t know. Are you?’
‘Today this morning a nurse misplaced a file. I was not happy about that. But I had a hot cup of tea, a slice of cake, and a sandwich. Soon I will return your notebook. Perhaps you should think of going for a walk with the other patients.’

The notebook has saved my life but I don’t tell the doctor that.

‘Wake up. Wake up all you blasphemous fools. All you fools that are sinners. All you Judases that have betrayed God with a kiss. Blasphemy. Blasphemy. I now pronounce you man and wife. You may kiss the bride. Speak now or forever hold your peace. Jesus wants you for a sunbeam. Michael row your boat to shore. Repent, you wicked sinner or you will never receive salvation.’
I pretend I am fast asleep. I can hear her walking up and down in the room. She is wearing sandals. Soft like ballet slippers. Another woman is sobbing into her pillow at the far end of the room. ‘Make her stop doing that.’ I hear her say but nobody comes to make her stop.
‘Are you awake yet? Wake up. I have good news for you. It is the coming of the Lord, the father of our Jesus Christ, son of David.’
‘Wake up.’

And every time she walks past my bed she says those words. And finally I turn my head and play dumb, nodding my head. In a way it is soothing to know that the religious part of me that was always there within, along with my faith, my values, and my spirituality has never ever left me. It is only the woman in the bed next to me. The aliens have contacted her and they have a message for our government or she can see into the future and the human race have to be saved or she is a modern female version of Nostradamus. It has saved my life. This needful thing of people needing friends. God I love you Botswana. All my life I have carried this yolk of being an only child, the shroud of being an orphan has shadowed me all my life. I wonder now what it would be like to have grown up in a family with other sisters and brothers and to find rainbows everywhere you looked even in the Sudan, in the desert, in Kenya, in Ghana.

When it comes to the wife and kindness you will find her in rooms. But I did not find my mother there. My mother was White. My father was Black. I was born during apartheid South Africa. They put ‘mixed race’ on my birth certificate. The city would not accept them, their love story so I was taken away, given up to a kind-hearted missionary family. I do not hate my mother. I never knew either of my parents. Laws, regulations, the powers that were replaced love, a mother’s love. When I think about my mother now first you will find her, my mother with European blood, mostly German in her in the kitchen. She is baking a cake. I am licking the bowl out. It tastes like chocolate. It is for my birthday party. All my friends and cousins, family and family friends will be there but they are men and women dreaming about being found. I can’t get back to him, my father, the garden boy who couldn’t probably read or write. They found a sea of words and experiences in a rose garden filled with trees. Was my father a savage? My maternal grandfather probably thought so. He probably thought that my father was also a rapist. My mother was beautiful, sophisticated, elegant, and young. Much too young to have me. She was also mentally ill. There’s an unbearable lightness to it when you’re a sufferer of it in the world. People don’t understand the stigma, you are hidden away like Mrs Rochester, Pinkerton’s Sister, you drink like Jean Rhys, and you have a suicidal illness like Plath and Anne Sexton, you have love affairs. Brush the romanticism off them and become promiscuous. A she-wolf. And now all the time before I fall asleep, close my eyes I imagine my grandmother brushing my mother’s hair before she goes to bed and wondering if my mother wondered what happened to me and what was going to become of her. In my subconscious there are unstable, strained realities. Some are bipolar as there were inside my mother’s head. The world does not seem to see me, understand me or accept me as a writer, poet, intellectual and rival to man. Where did help come from for my biological mother? She came from a wealthy Johannesburg family. Did she hold me when I was born or was I simply taken away? Did she understand what was happening around her?

‘Can I read what you’ve written Bessie?’ my doctor asks. He pushes his glasses up his nose. He is in his mid-thirties, young, young enough to be my son.

She feels as if she is defying gravity when she thinks about her son and where he is now. The doctor is as handsome as her son who was most probably now wandering throughout an unnamed city.

‘I don’t know if it makes much sense. I was a journalist in another world. Dimensions of truth always seem to lead me to a naked city. Doctor, you don’t look as if you eat.’
The doctor smiles. ‘I eat. But my day gets very busy. I usually have some tea and a sandwich or some fruit.’
‘Yes, but you must eat something much more substantial than that.’ I shook my head.
‘How are you feeling today otherwise Bessie?
‘Tired. Pensive. The writing helps.’
‘Hmm. I see. It is good that you’ve found something to occupy your mind with. You see that is always good. You know that there is not much else we can do for people who suffer from your malady at the hospital.’
‘Here’s my notebook doctor. It is mostly fragments. It is almost as if my head is communicating to my heart but there’s a filter. There’s a switch in my brain. Do you understand what I’m saying?’
‘Yes, I completely understand.’ The doctor said without understanding. He leaned back against the bench and rested his hands on his knees. ‘Do you miss those days at the newspaper?’
‘Yes and no. Once in a while. All the time. Sometimes when I think about it I think about what I’m missing and sometimes I dream about it.’
‘Tell me doctor do you have a wife.’
The doctor smiles. ‘Yes, yes I do have a wife.’
‘I don’t believe you. If you had a wife she wouldn’t let you survive on fruit alone and a sandwich and tea for lunch.’ The doctor smiled and then he began to laugh. The doctor laughed like a hyena. ‘Heh-heh-heh-heh-heh.’ He put his hand in front of his mouth as if he was coughing.
‘Bessie I think I will leave you now. I will take this with me, your notebook and read it. I encourage you not to be so pensive, not to think so much. And get as much rest as you can especially in the afternoons. It is good to rest. Good for the body. Good for the spirit. Keeps your spirits up. Good for the soul. Soup for the soul as the North Americans say. I read that in a book somewhere.’

And since it was nearly Easter I asked him do they make pickled fish in this part of Africa, this part of the world and he said no. They ate a kind of fried fish, sometimes they dried it in the sun. He said it was delicious. His mother was still alive so she made it when there was a family function sometimes and his wife too. I turned my head as if I was telling the doctor a secret.
The potatoes are hard. I can’t eat this. So I push it away on my plate. I drink my water. The nun pulls a face when she comes to collect my plate. I pretend I don’t see. They always say we should eat everything on our plate and not leave a bite. The vegetables come in a watery broth that tastes like nothing but they say it is good for us. It will strengthen us.
‘You won’t be getting any fruit if you don’t eat everything. Food is good for you.’ I pretend I don’t hear the nun. I rather pretend that I’m asleep. But I know that she knows I am only pretending. I feel sticky and hot. The sheets are pressed up against my skin. There is no air conditioning here.

I am making a supper. I am making a grown up supper for my mother and me. I am cooking traditional. This is for a mother I have never met. She is wearing something out of The Great Gatsby as if she is a flapper. She wears a rope of pearls around her neck. She fingers every pearl as if someone is going to steal them from her. My table is unlike any table she’s ever sat at. It is quite plain just like her wallflower daughter. Malay cuisine. She does not speak to me. She does not make eye contact with me. This is what those kind of women were like in those days. The things she would say would kill me. ‘This is too cold.’ And she would make a face as if she was going to be sick. ‘Take this away. I am not going to eat this. It’s inedible.’ Believe me there are some days I am happy I never knew her.

Bright lunatic, bouncing off the walls there were moments when my moods were both electrifying and terrifying until I found myself in this country. Botswana and I immediately fell in love with it like I did with the name Maru. Outside seems to be a very good way of looking in. The earth bottom’s out streaming, flowing. I taste the rain and swallow. Yes, even in Botswana it rains in the evenings when Africa is at her most beautiful.

For wintering you need layers of clothes. Thoughts like who created the wounded in modern war. The parting gift from this prideful world to the hereafter. The fog has taken a lover. The wasteland that lies before and behind me, farming communities, families, lovers of Botswana where the light is all shiny and new. In the material world I go by the name of Bessie Head. Not even the important people read my books in South Africa even though I was published in London. I no longer fulfill that role or function here in this hospital. No longer wife, no longer mother, no longer journalist chasing after genocide, asking those tough questions.

And so I forget about the sun.

When I think of suicidal illness, of the poetry that was written on the sometimes brutal wonder of living and taking your last breath on this earth I think about how Sylvia Plath wrote about the biblical Lazarus. And in spite of the men around her who thought they were worldlier than female poets and that she could never be worldly enough as if she was the first woman to even contemplate doing something like that (it had to come from a thought, a pure thought) and she did not fail. Everything after that was just a test that she passed, that was an achievement with flying colors. If I could become something much more than my disability, my infertility, the thread of alcoholism and addiction that ran throughout my family history on both sides of the family tree. If I could just become a sea of hands then I would become the winner who would stand alone.

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