I miss my mother more and more every day. My wife says a lot of unkind things about people that I don’t like but perhaps that is just her way. But on our wedding day she was my Cinderella. I was her prince. For the young making love is just for fun. I have never read Charles Bukowski, William Faulkner, D.H. Lawrence, Nadine Gordimer, and J.M. Coetzee. I’ve never even heard of Salinger. They have all swept my eldest daughter away. Sometimes I think to myself will she ever be a bride? Will she ever fall in love? Feel what her dad felt as he looked at his new wife. With our married life ahead of us. A day old. Will a man ever take her in his arms and say, ‘I love you best?’ But these are just the thoughts of an old man in the autumn of his years. This morning I felt depressed. The world can do that to you when you’re infirm. You think nothing will ever hurt you again. You’re built like an impenetrable fortress in the mountains at the end of the world. Our marriage had promised us new beginnings. Wonderful beginnings. But now there’s silence. I cry for what I have lost. Not real tears. Just a sob or two that wracks my body. She’s not so far away from me. The two double beds are in the same room. Gerda is reading by the light from a lamp while I search for my pharmaceuticals. Swallow my tablets as if they were aspirin. Curbing my enthusiasm as I watch her disrobe. Looking at her now I realise how much I still love her. Let me count the ways. Love has a delicate smell. It means to offer you the rituals of sacrifice, buying a house, moving furniture, a wife by the name of Gerda staring at her reflection in the mirror while she brushes the tangles out of her hair, pats her hair down, puts a stocking on and wraps a scarf around her head. She is still beautiful, but not just to me, to other people as well. I still think I didn’t deserve her. Is she happy? Have I made her happy? She stayed with me for better or for the worst. I ministered to my children. I lectured my children when it needed to be done. To set them straight. To set them on their life journey. Their pilgrimage of sorts. And I took them all, my loving, boisterous family from hell to an eternity of hell. And of course in the wards of hell, or the wards of Valkenburg, there is not much of a presence of becoming indoctrinated by religion. I didn’t find Buddha when I was in Valkenburg. I didn’t turn in a Brahmin. I was only introduced to that much later when my children were teen-agers. Things like meditation. I did give up smoking, but not red meat. Wiping the fat off my lips. I never drank much. I hated the stuff. I saw what it did to my own father. Gerda is silent. In her own world, and I wonder (it is not for the first time) what is she thinking about? Does she still love me as much as I love her? What I wouldn’t do to embrace her like I did the first night of our married life? I hate this loneliness that is flowering inside of me like a lotus. I must write about what I like, what I mesmerises my all-knowing, all-seeing eyes, about the difficulties of married life, the first meal my wife cooked for me as my wife, how I watched the movements of my wife at our wedding feast set out in a church hall, filled with Johannesburg people, and a few members of my family. I must write about what makes me emotional (yes, even men get emotional, over-excited about the annihilation of evil by good). I must write about what makes me misty-eyed, what cuts me deep where the depths of suicidal illness awaits, watching my children in Victoria Park playing while I watched them from afar, sitting on a park bench that was once reserved for Whites only in a White people’s park. Over weekends the park would usually be deserted. I’d get chocolate and packets of crisps for the children. I’d see their smiles. Their laughter and sticky fingers would lift me. Give me a buoyant mood. Perhaps you are sensing that I am not telling you the whole truth. There were days when I had to force myself to get out of bed. I was a man who had plenty of responsibilities. I couldn’t just give in, quit life, quit family life, lie on the sofa, stop taking cold, refreshing showers that restored some vitality, some energy to my brain, and clarity of thought, vision and self-actualisation to my insight. I couldn’t escape my children, I couldn’t not acknowledge them (their pain was my pain, their emotional fabric in time, was my emotional fabric in time and place, and their moments of childhood depression stopped me dead in my tracks). I couldn’t just quit my children’s world, divorce their mother, live without the difficulties of a husband, live in a bachelor pad with relative freedom, no domestic responsibilities from their world, because they needed me. My family needed me. And as I watched my small children looking at all the things I couldn’t buy for them (their choices they already knew had to fit my pocket), things like that would melt my heart in the Greek’s shop, and as they carefully made their purchases I was eternally grateful that I had made it through another day. I had made it through another manic depressive episode. No more aspirin for me. I had put Valkenburg behind me. There was Elizabeth Donkin, and the beginning of lithium therapy. There was my beautiful wearing blue jeans, a comfortable jersey that I had seen her in many times, and a white shirt. There was my wife getting out of the car. I was waiting for her on the steps of ward F. Waiting for her perfunctory kiss on the cheek. Waiting to sit down in well-worn chairs.
‘How are you?’
‘I’ve missed you.’
‘I’ve missed you too. When are you coming home?’
Well, the conversation would go something like that.
I watched her shield her eyes, looking, looking, and looking for me. And then her field of vision changed. Her eyes met mine. And then she was locking the car door. Making her way towards me with that day’s newspaper, a selection of magazines, bottles of juices, or a fruit basket. And the depression, with its elated highs that felt so invincible, that made me feel exquisite frustration, the faith that I had that the feelings were killing me, every day would come with their turning points. My heart was suicidal depression’s apprentice. My brain was its master. I put my wife on a pedestal, but did she know it? In the beginning before I was married, I thought of all women as sex objects. Did I tell her how much I loved her? I worshiped the ground she walked on. Before her I was not romantic. Before I met my future wife my style and technique of a lover was dry when I was depressed. She made me into the man I am today. Throughout it all she convinced me to choose life, discriminate death. For every season there is a senseless tragedy. In love nothing is insignificant.
‘Off to the old age home with you.’ She said the other day. It broke my heart to hear her say that. We don’t make love anymore. We sleep in separate beds. There’s a distance between us now that I can’t describe. It has no time or place. It’s like a bridge. If we stayed together or even for as long as we have it is only because of the children. Sometimes I wonder what my wife was like as a child. The grief she must have felt as a young child after losing a sibling, a brother. But we never spoke about things like that. I never yearned to ask my fiancé, or new bride anything that would make her feel uncomfortable. In her eyes, I wanted to be give her only good memories. I wanted to make her forget about the pain of her childhood the way she made me forget about my own painful childhood. How I was bullied, terrorised on the playground, teased, called names.
As a child I was a watcher, a dreamer. I was always in love with books. With self-learning. With teaching myself new things about the world around me. Life experience. That’s what White people called it. White people had cars. White people sold. White people were business minded professionals. When I was a child I fell in love with education. Maybe that’s when I became a teacher. In childhood. I had an unquiet mind. I still do. There are a lot of rituals when I go to church on Sunday morning. There’s the breaking of bread and Holy Communion. It’s not real wine of course. It’s just grape juice. I’m a changed man when I leave the church (less depressed. I feel less lonely. I don’t know why that is. Maybe is has to with the biochemistry of the brain, or social activities, being involved in something even if it is as mundane as going to church). And the bread is not the thin wafers we used to get at the Union Congregational Church that the children looked at so longingly in their innocent hearts with that angelic shine on their faces. My wife and I would bite into the wafers. With that one bite the body of Christ was now part of our spirit, our soul consciousness, our physical bodies. Abigail couldn’t understand that she had to be confirmed before she could partake of the body of Christ and the drinking of grape juice. She told me that we (it was always we even though I was the one behind the steering wheel of the car) road past Mrs Turner in the street, and that although Mrs Turner (Abigail called her Mrs Turnip behind her back after that day) saw us, must have recognised our car she didn’t wave back. Well her body is all weirdly shaped like a turnip was Abigail’s thought and I told her that’s what happened to people as they got older. Everything physical changed and sometimes they started to forget things too like their manners (etiquette to Abigail).
I just smiled and then I laughed and said, ‘Really? Maybe she didn’t see us.’
‘Daddy, really? Are you sure? She looked right at me and I waved and I waved and I waved and she still didn’t wave back.’
I couldn’t tell her this then. She was too young. An innocent. They could hurt me, but I would not let them hurt my children.
The following year we started going to Pearson Congregational Church which was situated in Central. Everyone who went there was White. You love your children. You really do whether they’ve done something good or bad. You’re the one person in the world they can to when they need anything. If they ask you for money you bend down and you tell them to pick the money off the money tree. You tell them that you love them because that is the remedy for everything. When they’re sick you nurse them back to health. When it’s their birthday you buy them a cake, presents wrapped in brightly coloured paper, blow up balloons, and you give them a party and invite all the neighbourhood. You give them a hug when they it the most even when they’re at their most rebellious nature. Shower them with fatherly concern when giving advice. It’s also your honour, and privilege to provide daily inspiration from a verse in the Bible, to school projects. But when they get depressed of course you worry for them. You have discussions behind a closed bedroom door in the middle of the night that go and go on until the early hours of the morning and you think back to when you were in high school. I was from a different generation. The more things change the more they stay the same. Isn’t that what the adage says? Should we all go and talk to someone like a family counsellor, a therapist. Gerda was always the one who was two steps ahead of me. She didn’t come out and say it or tell me what she was thinking. She took Abigail when she was barely out of her teens to a psychiatrist who studied in Vienna. He had wild hair like Einstein. She had been prepared for an eventuality of this magnitude. She was the one who had been prepared. Not me. And there was a part of me that felt like a failure. I had been completely blindsided. I had not seen the diagnosis coming. Not from a mile away. My beautiful, darling daughter. My darling, darling daughter was a manic depressive just like me. Bipolar. Bipolar. Bipolar. I was struck dumb. Speechless. What could I say? How could I comfort her? She hated school. She hated every minute every second of it. A monumental waste of her time it was she said. She already knew that everything she was being taught came out of a textbook that supported the cause of a colonial master. That supported a White cause. A liberal’s issues. Not hers by a long shot. We had to do a lot of talking, and listening, and the having of more conversations behind a closed bedroom door at night to try and convince her to stay in school. They were lots of tears. Everybody cried. There were arguments. There were times when she stayed with her aunt in Johannesburg and we would be under the false impression that now everything would be all right again in her world. We had dreams for me. She was brought up with norms and values. And we didn’t, couldn’t just let her throw her life away like that. Somehow, somewhere when she was fifteen years old she had written away to The London Film School. ‘So she wants to run away to London now.’ Gerda sighed. She wore a perplexed look on her face, chewing her bottom lip in pensive mode. I thought back to Abigail’s last words of the conversation the three of us had, mother, father, with their rebellious, fiercely intelligent, highly temperamental daughter. ‘I hate you.’ She almost spat. ‘You’re killing me. If I stay here I’ll die. You’ll see. I’ll show all of you. I’ll kill myself if I don’t go to film school. I want to go to London.’
Gerda had more intuition, knowledge and insight into how females thought and bonded and suddenly at midnight she bloomed. Her face pale in the moonlight, with aquiline features that her daughter Abigail had inherited from her but not her tennis legs or her mother’s love for that game. I couldn’t make out her face but I knew it was shining full of love for me, and for our daughter. All three of our children had been conceived in love.
‘Where will she stay? Where will she sleep? What will she eat every day for breakfast, lunch, and supper? Is she sleeping now I wonder? She just sits glued in front of that television all hours of the day and night. Ambrose tell me, what do you think I should do? We? Us? She’ll never be accepted. I read that story. It’s terrible. But if I say that to her it will break her heart. She’s fifteen going on sixteen.’
Back and forth my flashbacks goes. Presently we are here. The house is quiet haunted by ghosts from the past. Stephen. Jean. Magdalene. My parents. Gerda’s own mother and father passed away when Abigail was still a baby. Baby Ethan is sleeping soundly between his parents on their double bed. He is a real busybody. He only has eyes for his mother Already he has two milk teeth which has everyone in a frenzy in the household.
I wish sometimes that I had listened more, praised her cooking skills (even though she burnt the pots more times than I could keep track of), given more attention to my wife. Had not treated her like I had treated all the women in my life. Indentured slave girls only there to make me tea, be my secretary, flirt with. Women who would stroke my ego given the chance. She had given me everything of herself that she could as a wife, but I had not been completely open with her. Only in retrospect when I look back at the events of the past decade and they shaped all three of our children’s futures did I see how selfish and arrogant I had been. I had not come clean. Pharmaceuticals cannot wash away sins. With my silence I had passed down three life sentences. I wish I had done something. Said anything to console my wife it would be twenty years until we got our daughter back. Have I made Gerda happy, and what about my children, are they happy? Are they successful? Have my children fulfilled all their childhood goals? People change from one generation to the next. That’s the thing with people, milestones and events. They are always changing, and yet always staying the same. I thought I would be my daughter’s anchor in that moment like my mother had been in mine.
‘Fine. If you want to go then leave. We won’t stand in your way if this is going to make you happy.’ I said with my eyes meeting the floor we covered in carpet.
I didn’t want her to see the dejection in my eyes. I would miss her laughter, our talks, heated discussions, and debates. Mostly I would miss her presence. But she was depressed. She hated school. She had done very badly in the exams. Magdalene was still alive then. So Swaziland it was then for O and A levels and then The London Film School that is if she could get a British Council scholarship if she was lucky.
My mother had been my anchor throughout my depressive episodes. The crushing highs that took me to the wuthering heights of Rhodes and London and the numbing, frustrating lows that took me to my bed. Sometimes I would just lay on the bed still in my suit.my body was not sore, did not feel tired, my eyes were burning, but sleep would not come, only a numb sensation starting from the top of me head that would make its way down to the tips of my toes. Every parent wants to protect their child, sometimes protect them from everything. The world isn’t all bad. Tomorrow isn’t going to be all doom and gloom like today was. There are good people in this world who are just as affected by sickness, chronic illness, cancers, diseases
Madness? Madness! What is madness? What a question! Do people question John Nash? Do they call him mad, insane, tell him that he’s weird? Do they question this genius’s sanity, his intelligence, or do they just write him off as wired differently from the rest of the human race. Is he an anomaly? One evening my children came to me. My son looked at me. Tall, dark, and handsome, one would be forgiven for thinking his introversion is arrogance he said, ‘Dad. It’s time for you to sit down and write your story. Write your memoir. Write your autobiography if you will.’ To tell you the truth it has been two years now, nearly three. I can’t clearly recall if that conversation ever took place. I can’t remember who said what, when, the how I was going to go about it. I have written about depression. I have written about mental health. I have written books. South End. The aftermath of the forced removals. To be honest with you people didn’t stand in line for me sign that book. My guess that that was a sign. A sign from God. I paid attention. I listened. And I turned my attentions elsewhere to committee meetings, reading the newspapers. People just didn’t like me to talk about apartheid. That book quietly disappeared, and went out of print. People just weren’t into that vibe. The book wasn’t giving off good vibrations so people weren’t turning up to buy that book. But out of everything that I have written so far that book is my favourite. I have written about depression before from a sufferer’s perspective, and that little book turned out to be an enormous bit of loose cannon, then a diamond in the rough, and then a little gem of a book.
People like to romanticise apartheid now but I don’t. They put up pictures, photographs, paintings of struggle heroes and heroines in museums. There are public holidays, streets, buildings, foundations, bursaries, books, poetry, memoirs, autobiographies named after them, written in memory of them and some of them are even given honorary doctorates. Some posthumously. All I think about these days in the autumn of my years as I watch television at night, bits and pieces of the news, well, it means absolutely nothing to me. Climate change, global warning, it’s just the recession that has hit us all the hardest. My friends are no longer here. Most of them have passed on. I remember them fondly. Sometimes with tears in my eyes. I’m an old man now. I’m losing my hair. My wife, young and pretty. She will always be young and pretty to me. The blushing bride in her white lace on her wedding day. I remember I lost one of my white gloves between signing the register (I have a Scout’s knot in my throat now when I think back to my wedding day. My own children won’t understand this. They won’t understand what married life is until my son steps over that threshold with his new wife. Until my girls have said, ‘In sickness and health. Till death do us part.’ Come hell or high water I will be here for them all until the day I can’t be here anymore. I do what I can. I put the apron on and wash the dishes. Dry them carefully. Pack them away. The women in this house are always rearranging the furniture in the kitchen. But that has nothing to do with me. I play my part. I have a role to play in this family. I am the patriarch of this household. I am father. I am uncle. I am nurturer, caretaker, provider, and breadwinner. If we must eat pies for supper, then I walk down the road and buy them. I swing my arms. I walk much more these days than I did before but not far. Not far.) So now where was I? Right. I lost my white glove and Gerda was laughing at me. I got lucky. I didn’t really deserve her you know what with everything I put her and the children through. But somehow we made it to the other side. She’s angelic. She is. My wife. My wife. My wife. Abigail is the oldest and the brightest star in my universe. My Beethoven and my Kubrick. She has been through so much. Up streets and down streets. Johannesburg and Swaziland. Film school. School after school after school.
Psychometric tests. She’s done them all, and they have all said the same thing. She’s been psychoanalysed to death by psychologist after psychologist but she has a fighting spirit. All my children have fighting spirits. My son has done the impossible. He has given me an heir to the throne. Words can’t express what I feel when I look at his son. My son. My son and his son. Abigail, well, I think she thinks too much (she’s curious about everything, every impulse that the human species has, everything negative that happens in the world, the aftershocks are always of biblical proportions. I worry for her. Her personality is different. She lives by a completely different set of rules. People who live with depression often do live a life made up with a mind-set of elegant mathematics. She doesn’t think like a woman. My son and daughter are both complex creatures. Their mother elegant, and cold. When she descended upon Port Elizabeth after the honeymoon she seemed so exotic, so out of place here but she soon picked out furniture for out flat. Made it comfy. We had so many plans, dreams and goals. It was very, very difficult to conceive children. It took us five years and then we had Abigail, who was followed by another short stop and then my son, my son. Ambrose, my son. He is my namesake. He is my pride and joy. All I do these days is talk, and talk, and talk. Mostly about the past before I forget. I have to remember to write down everything I say because if I forget then who will remember the forced removals, South End, Fairview (where my mother had property, a domestic worker of all people, a seamstress at one of the best high schools in the country. She saved her money for a rainy day and bought land.) I think if you want to romanticise anything don’t romanticise your education, romanticise your culture, your heritage instead. Don’t romanticise mental illness, your London experience, or your European experience, visits to castles, trips in gondolas, the palace of Versailles, romanticise your family life, your domestic duties. Romanticise writing. Abigail is a poet. My second daughter has done very well for herself. Well, she lives in Johannesburg, works in a bank. She’s moneyed. Now she’s a socialite, a connoisseur if I ever saw one. I just didn’t mean to bring up one. If I don’t write nobody will remember anything about the Coloured identity, psyche and intellect in the Northern Areas from my generation. We’ll all be six feet under, pushing up daisies pretty soon. And then what? Ghosts. Getting a dead man to tell you a story about his childhood days is like squeezing blood from a stone. Have you ever tried squeezing blood from a stone? I remember when I was writing up my historical research about the London Missionary Society the state of mind I was in. I was on a hypomanic high while I was writing most of it. Nearing a complete collapse. I thought my professor would tell me, ‘Ambrose, what is this? It’s a complete and utter disaster from start to finish’. But I persevered. He’s in Canada now or dead. But I give my peace wherever he is. He was a part of my life for a very long time. I appreciated all his help. He was very liberal of course in his ideas of politics of course. We would never have tea together. That’s what I mean. Sometimes after driving hours from Port Elizabeth to Grahamstown. After making the trip I would make my way to his office and to my utter astonishment he would not be there. The door would be locked. It would sometimes bring tears to my eyes. Yes. He made me cry. For ten years up and down. I was principal at the time at a public school in a sub-economic area. I taught the kids there to reach for the stars. I can never seem to place names to all the faces who stop me in the street or who kindly offer me a lift home. I take their hand. And in their faces even when I don’t recognise them all I see is affection, honesty, and gratitude for what I taught them, for what I said, even though I was tough on them. I sometimes took a lot of heat for what I said from Inspectors, from irate parents who would come to see after I had given their angel six of the best. There was no detention in those days. Corporal punishment wasn’t abhorred as it is now. I loved those kids like I loved my three children at home. Hundreds and hundreds of them. Where are all of them now, I wonder to myself sometimes? Are they all successful? Are they making money? Are they paying their mortgages, seeing to the bills, or are they unemployed. In the good old days when we had a near perfectly run education system even in the Northern Areas (even though it was under an apartheid government run by Coloured Affairs) many of my kids made their way to universities overseas. Many of them live their now, are raising their own families there now. Many have it to easy. They’re living the easy life. And they’ve completely erased the past. The poverty, the spiritual poverty, the hunger, the desire to learn on the faces of the children who came from much more impoverished homes. Matchstick houses we called them in those days. They’re still standing in the Northern Areas to this day a symbol of racial hatred for all the world to see. Our society is traumatised. People are traumatised. The youth are affected mostly by drugs. The drug of choice these days for Coloured youth is tik. Babies having babies. More and more children being born out of wedlock. Where is this taking place? In the Northern Areas.