Yesterday, a friend of mine died. We were somewhat estranged, yes. But we were friends. We shared a history. We grew up together. She claimed that we bathed together as children. I don’t see how that could have been possible.
Her mother was a severe Scot, who never really acclimatized to the heat and dust of Africa. She married an Afrikaner and came to despise him and his name. They divorced, leaving her with an only child – my friend. I remember her as a severe, tight-lipped woman with long grey hair, tied in an unforgiving bun. A matron at a general hospital. She would appear tired and irritable at the door of her flat at the end of the day. She would light up a cigarette and settle down in an armchair with a cup of tea – the reward she would give herself for the hard life her now dead husband had left her.
She was entirely unforgiving of her child, who could never do right in her eyes. She was never good enough. She was never clever enough. She would never get anywhere in life. She was too tall. She was too fat. She was too lazy. Yes, it is true, she herself was tired. She worked hard, in difficult conditions and under difficult circumstances. She was a single parent. But she took her despair out on her child, relentlessly.
This woman went to church regularly. The church was in one of the leafier suburbs of Johannesburg – where judges and advocates would go to worship on a Sunday morning. Thinking back on it now, I can see that she was the wrong class for that set. And her religion far too judgemental and singular – to sparse, too lean for a perfect fit. But she was always there. And so was her daughter.
That is where we met – the two of us slightly out of our class. Singing music in the choir neither of our parents would ever normally have listened to. Learning to be polite, in that refined environment. We became friends. We became teenagers. We made pacts with each other, that we would meet in our twenty-first year in Oxford; that we would travel to China; that we would be wild and free.
Life intervened for her. She got married and had a child. And her mother maintained her unwavering air of disapproval. The marriage ended in divorce. The child was brought up first and unsuccessfully by his father and then much more happily by his mother, who, having abandoned her responsibility initially, went back and made good for the rest of his upbringing.
She had some wild moments in her life – like the Indian boyfriend, when such a thing was unheard of and illegal. Like the buckets of marijuana she would get through on a regular basis. Like the spur of the moment (and disastrous) second marriage to an idiot and a fraudster. Like the squander of a small inheritance on holidays in Scotland, when there were much more pressing needs.
But there were some things which were never to change. It was as if the burden of disapproval weighed on her cellular structure. She gained weight to an alarming degree and simply would never shed it. She became sedentary and would sit in a smoke-filled living room watching hours of television and moving only to find another packet of cigarettes. The telephone would be near her. There would be a large, un-emptied waste basket for her butts and a lamp to switch on when it got dark. Her cat or her dog would share the couch.
I came to understand her behaviour as depression of the most profound kind. Every now and again she would seek treatment, but it was always half-hearted and never followed through. It was not something she would discuss with any ease.
She loved a drama, but I saw in later years, that even dramas seemed to prove too much effort for her. So she started to withdraw. Her mother’s death gave her the ability to resign from her job for a few years, and this proved, to my mind, to be the worst possible thing that could have happened to her. Because it enabled her to withdraw completely.
I tried making contact on numerous occasions, but she did not want it. Others have told me the same. She wanted to be alone. She wanted to disengage. Her self- loathing had started to feed on itself and needed the half-light of anonymity to grow and to finally overcome.
And that is how she died. Entirely alone. And when I think about it, I have to come to the conclusion that she was severely damaged. And that the damage caused to her, was caused to that person in turn, by someone else – and that story one may never know.
And so it goes, if one lets it. It travels down the generations, finding new blood for itself. New ground to grow its roots. New air to spread its branches. If one lets it.
You were a brave soul, in many ways, my friend. In some ways you managed to challenge that darkness. Your intentions were always good. You protected your son from the marauding that you had to face. Mostly you did, I think. So, it may be different for him.
But you – you were a victim. And now you are dead.
Well, goodbye my friend. I am sorry I could not help you. I don’t think anyone could. Perhaps, now, the poison has run dry.