The Books | The Poetry | The Stories / Murmurs of the Girl in Me
Double / by Carla Heuer
Of all the times there must have been a time
that your hot fi nger torched between her breasts,
pierced and halved the sternum, made an eve
and kept the half of her. She was a bonsai
little sister, bastard daughter, previous
me. In seven years I’ve grown new skin and stretched
my bones to fi ll out legs that know to stride
and stride from you, but
she I thought I’d swallowed
wears me now, and now she writhes, as though
these limbs are all too small for her – as though
I owe her more than just the nights, when, breastbones
bound, we can’t tell where we start or end;
we scurry from this wall to that; we claw
at bricks and dust where windows ought to be.
27 julie 2007:
life does go on dogtertjie / deur Adele Voster
’n poem om jou seer op te som handgrootte vuisgrootte
dé, kyk gou, so lyk my seer
so het dit gebeur
so voel die kind in my daaroor
gou-gou jong dat die wêreld kan sien
en dan weer vergeet
jy’s net een voice in a billion
’n poem om te vertel van die worsteling
die lang pad
om te probeer om weer sin te maak
uit ’n lewe wat fragmente is
’n lewe wat jou kop in ’n ballon gedruk het
en jou kyk verander het in wantroue
vanuit jou ballon bekyk jy die wêreld
jy kyk hom so
jy dink: sien julle dan nie hoe val ek nie
kyk ek val
en julle kyk julle kyk so fronsend
wat sou tog...?
moet ons net nie inconvenience nie asb
life does go on jy weet?
Fist / by Jayne Bauling
Always the grey go-away birds are imperative
but she cannot join her voice to theirs
save inside her head,
this girl I don’t want to have been me,
child endlessly obeying
the order to be quiet,
perpetually silently submitted.
forever a private clamour
held inside, prisoner of the knotted fi st
behind my ribs, curled hard
around the secret I can’t tell,
have to tell, and when I do –
the staring eyes, unhearing ears
of strangers asking questions
in alien, adult places
where I feel small and stupid,
sullen with my inability
to make them see
until fi st turns outward
to hold and beat them off,
punish those unknowing
that it feels eternal,
happening and happening, and
I don’t know how to make it stop;
fi st raised too
to fl ail ferociously at others,
not-strangers, urging amnesia.
always the strident cry,
uttered for me by the birds outside
with crested heads and bead-bright eyes,
their quaint comedy a picture
I keep in my mind
so I won’t have to see
this clenched-fi st person I don’t want to be,
don’t have to be,
when unfurling lies with me,
one fi nger at a time,
opening for me,
because she’s me,
this person I don’t want to be,
will learn to be, for me.
The Tip-Toe Men / by Isabella Morris
If Dolly Parton could see my mother’s bruised cheekbone, she would
sing, it’s a lesson too late for the learning. If I see my aunt slipping into
my mother’s bedroom and closing the door behind her, then 1 know
there are secrets in the house. If I close my ears, I can’t hear their
words; if I listen, I’ll hear the truth. If Nana was here, she would frown
at my mother and say, “Whish! Pull yourself together, you’re a mother
for God’s sake.” If the fridge is empty, it means they’re coming back
– The Tip-Toe Men. If I hear the Indian Mynas scratching in the eaves,
I know the sun is on its way and I can fall asleep.
We haven’t always lived in this long narrow house with its cell-small
rooms situated on the wrong side of the sun. We came here after Nana
died, and my mother made up the lie of my father dying in a hunting
accident. My aunt Rachel fetched us from Nana’s empty fl at in Knysna
and brought us here to Durban. Rachel isn’t one of my mother’s madeup
relatives, she’s got the same sticky out teeth as me and my mother.
When she arrived, she stared at my sister Lucy; she put her left hand on
her hip, scratched her fanny with her right hand and shook her head.
“Jissie Vanessa, when did you start sleeping with darkies?” That’s when
I grabbed Lucy’s hand. She’s only four and I’m going to high school
My mother either refuses to talk or else everything that spills out of her
mouth is a lie. It’s diffi cult to know what’s happening in our lives, when
my mother and Rachel close us out of their conversations. Lucy and I
get to believe whatever we want to. “For God’s sake, create your own
future, don’t be dragged down by our fucked-up past,” my mother says
to us before she’s swallowed too many pills for the day. Lucy doesn’t
understand the concept of past, present or future. I try to explain this
to our mother, but she gets that faraway expression in her eyes and
sends me away with a slow wave of her pale white arms. I always have
to fetch a glass of water for her. As the small pink tablets slide down
my mother’s throat, I say, “Am I ever going to go back to school?” My
mother doesn’t open her eyes.
Rachel might be family, but she doesn’t like us; she pulls me aside
and says, “Jeannie, you better start watching out for Lucy – and teach
her that there are places you girls aren’t allowed to go here, do you
understand!” She blows a necklace of blue smoke beads at us, I fan
the smoke away and remind her that Lucy has asthma. “Jesus, fucking
Christ!” she says and clomps off. I wish people wouldn’t swear in front
of Lucy. The future I have mapped out for Lucy is not for us to be
living in the overcrowded places my mother and my aunty Rachel like
to live in.
When Lucy makes the mistake of walking into one of the rooms that
are off-limits, Rachel belts her across the back of her chubby legs.
“Don’t smack her!” I shout. Rachel kicks off her high heels and runs
down the corridor after me. I push Lucy into the room and stand across
the doorway; Rachel hits me so hard I can’t see even though my eyes
are still open. My mother sleeps through all the crying and the hitting
and the shouting. Later in the broken wedge of mirror I look at the
bloody gash that will make me look like I have a double right eyebrow
for the rest of my life. When darkness comes I let Lucy climb into my
bed and I pat away her jagged sobs, and I have to wonder what future
we could possibly create. I open the fridge, it is not empty.
If there are tears in my mother’s eyes it means that she won’t talk to
us for days. If daddy had kissed me he wouldn’t have let us go. If he
turned around and smiled, my mother wouldn’t have shot him. If I
close my eyes, I can see the tuft of hair just beneath his lower lip. If
there’s a black and white movie on the TV, my mother cries. If I don’t
smooth out the creases in our lives, I won’t be able to get back to the
Going to school comes with so many rules. “No lies. No, no, I mean
not the truth! You have to promise, Jeannie.” My mother’s eyes are pinprick
paranoid. “We are always happy, we do things together don’t we?
And I absolutely never let you out of my sight. Do-You-Hear-Me?”
My mother shapes the words as though I am deaf, her fingernails bladesharp
against my elbows. “If you fuck it up, then you know Lucy has
no future, don’t let her down, Jeannie.” My mother runs alongside the
school bus, the stretched ends of her thin jersey fl apping against her
At school there are the questions, but I have to tell the lies to prevent
the truth from ruining Lucy’s future. I tell them that Rodrigo was our
father and that he died while he was cleaning his gun. Sister Margaret-
Mary’s eyes widen and Mrs Murphy’s lips quiver as she closes my empty
fi le. They lead me to a classroom where the smell of pencil shavings and
sandwiches wrapped in wax paper remind me of the primary school I
attended near Nana’s house. In the peanut butter lunches I can smell
the time when things were safe. I remember that my father’s eyes were
honey-brown and that you could see the gap of his missing molar when
he laughed and the tuft of hair under his lip tickled my chin when he
At home there are the questions and the lies that I have to tell to
prevent school being taken away from me. I tell my mother and Rachel
that Sister Margaret-Mary and Mrs Murphy are very kind and that I
don’t need to have a transfer card from my old school. I tell them I
wrote an aptitude test and the results were good. If I tell the truth, we
will move again. The truth will develop into my mother’s worries and
she might swallow enough pink pills to keep her eyes closed forever.
I do not want Rachel to be my stepmother. I forget to check the fridge
before Lucy falls asleep on my chest.
I lie in bed and pray to St Bernadette that Mrs Murphy will forget
Sister Margaret-Mary’s instructions to obtain the transfer card. If I keep
smiling, Sister Margaret-Margaret might let me stay. If I starve for a
week, the red rims around Lucy’s eyes will disappear. If I let Lucy sleep
next to me, she won’t wake up screaming again. If I don’t check on
my mother at night, I won’t feel the hot-breath whispers of our past
chasing me back down the passage. If I wind Nana’s rosary around my
hands, the Tip-Toe Men won’t come.
There is a park between school and the long narrow house that isn’t
a house and isn’t a commune, it’s something-in-between, but nobody
names it. The women who stay here aren’t friendly to Lucy and me,
except for Amberlade. She’s big and loud and laughs when one of the
women swear at her. She’s the same warm tea colour as Lucy and we
make up a rhyme about her as we walk to the park.
Amberlade, Amberlade, can you give us Lemonade? We’re so thirsty,
we’re all dry. Is there drink for us to buy? You’re so pretty, you’re so fi ne,
that’s why your boyfriends bring you wine.
Lucy holds on to my hand tighter than a pair of pinching shoes. My
palm gets stiff and sweaty but Lucy trembles if I loosen my grip. She
has started sticking her thumb in her mouth and I wonder if thumbsin-
mouths is what gave Rachel, my mother and me our sticky-out teeth.
I pull Lucy’s thumb out of her mouth and try to reason with her, but
she’s only four and she doesn’t care if she has sticky-out teeth like me.
“Amberlade is pretty, but I want to look like you,” she says.
The Health Department are giving German Measles injections at
school. My mother lights one cigarette from another. “It’s a fucking
trick,” she says, refusing to sign the consent form. Rachel snorts.
“Jissie, but you’re losing it hey. What pills are you taking?” My mother
doesn’t answer Rachel, instead she says, “If it’s German Measles now,
next thing they’ll be doing DNA. You know they take footprints in
America so that you can’t steal a kid.” Lucy grabs my hand, the rubbery
macaroni she was chewing comes fl ying out of her mouth. I remove her
quickly, out of reach of Rachel’s fast right arm. “I’ll stay home, I don’t
care if I get German Measles. See, here’s Jeannie staying home! Not
going anywhere, no injections. No tricks.”
If I don’t take my birth certifi cate, I can’t get a transfer card to high
school. If my father was here he would say, “Girls, let’s make a warthog
potjie.” If I wear Amberlade’s sunglasses then Lucy won’t see the
fear in my eyes. If Lucy puts on the sunglasses then we won’t see the
emptiness in hers. If my mother puts on sunglasses, the Tip-Toe Men
will come back.
My birth certifi cate is folded into a square the size of a matchbox,
my mother thinks that smaller dilutes the truth. Mother: Vanessa Cox.
Father: Unknown. She says she thinks it was Samuel. Aunty Rachel
snorts and says, ‘That’ll be the day, she’s the image of... you know
who.” I remember that small tuft of hair under his lip and I’m about to
say his name, but my mother steals it from me, twists my fantasy into
another of her lies. “God, Rodrigo! Even he thought he was the father.
I told him a thousand times he wasn’t but still he let her think he was
her father. Jeannie, I’m sorry but it was fucking bullshit.” I wish I’d let
them vaccinate me against German Measles. If there was a DNA test
going I could have volunteered for it. That would sort out my mother’s
lies once and for all.
The fridge is empty. My mother is in bed wearing Amberlade’s
sunglasses. I smell the chlorine of a hundred men. I see the pile of pills
scattered on the table next to her bed. I taste the smoke that hangs in
her room along with the sadness that clings to her thin sweaty body.
On the fl oor I see a pair of panties, just a small twisted triangle with
Barbie’s blue-eyed stare.
If I gave Lucy a birthday party, the pink and white icing would be
Barbie’s dress. If my mother read a book, it wouldn’t be the Bible. If
there are holes in my transfer card, my mother’s got more than enough
lies to fill them.
I hold Lucy’s head against my heart. I have pushed the chair against the
door because there is no key. I whisper against Lucy’s ear, “We lived
on a hill outside Knysna. Mommy smelled like fresh laundry and she
laughed a lot. We lived in a house with a big fi replace and mommy dyed
wool in the barn, in big vats. Her fi ngers were stained and we made up
stories using the colours of her fi ngers. I owned sheepskin slippers and a
pair of donkey pyjamas that had a tail.”
My mother can tell all the lies she likes but I know Rodrigo bought
me those pyjamas. He paid the ladies to clean the house while my
mother told me stories during the wet winters. She can deny what she
likes, but making up stories all the time doesn’t make her lies any more
believable. Rodrigo was my father, Rodrigo wanted to be my father.
That’s good enough for me. He would have been Lucy’s father too, if
she hadn’t shot him. If my mother hadn’t built another barn and let
it to backpackers, the Tip-Toe Men wouldn’t have come and Rodrigo
could have carried on being my father.
Sister Angela says there’s going to be an inquiry, and even though
I don’t like swearing, in my head I’m saying fuck, fuck, fuck.
Unfortunately the district nurses couldn’t fi nd number 15 Osprey
Street when they came to see why I hadn’t come to school for the
vaccination. I breathe a sigh of relief because I have forged my mother’s
signature on the consent form. “I can have the injection, I was just sick
on that day. It’s not good to get a vaccination when you’re not well.
It’s true, I read it somewhere.”
The health department is in a tizz because they had twenty one
vaccinations and the district nurses had to return to the health
department with ‘0’ vaccinations. They thought they would come
and vaccinate me at home to avoid writing up in triplicate why they
had T vaccination over. “Everything isn’t tallying up, you see Jeannie.
People like things to add up,” Sister Margaret-Mary says. The nurses
couldn’t fi nd our house and then they realised that they could have
misread the false address that I gave. I nod, ‘“Yes, that’s exactly what
happened! We’re at number–” Sister Angela clicks her disapproval, her
disappointment, “Number 15 is – as everyone knows – a house of illrepute.”
If we didn’t eat hamburgers there would be a lot more cows in the
world. If I grow up I’ll have to stop pretending. If I don’t grow up
soon, we’re all in serious trouble. If my mother doesn’t wear panties
and I’m too old for a 3-pack Barbie panties...
I find Lucy outside Amberlade’s room, sitting on the cracked brown
steps. “Come, I’ll buy you an ice-cream,” I say, even though she is
shivering and her hair hasn’t been washed. Small white blisters bubble
in the corner of her mouth and a scab of snot crusts her left nostril.
“Jesus, I’ll have to take better care of you,” I say and I let her hang
onto me just as tight as she wants to. To tell God’s honest truth, I
don’t know which of us is holding up the other.
The merry-go-round is full of loud, unfriendly boys and Lucy screams
and makes her legs stiff when I try to position her on the long iron
rocking horse. I lead her to the swings and she winces only slightly
when I place her on the smooth wooden seat. I push her from the
front, that way I can adjust the speed and height of my push according
to her expression. I smile at her, but her smiles are prisoner to the
dark rings around her eyes. I push a little harder, the swing jerks, the
unexpected gust of wind lifts her faded dress. Barbie stares cold-eyed
from between my sister’s thighs.
I gave Sister Margaret-Mary his name. “He was my father, I know
he was,” I said and she just sucked her lips against her teeth. I think
sometimes God wouldn’t like her to say what she’s thinking. It felt
good to tell someone else that Rodrigo was my father. Encouraged
by Sister Margaret-Mary’s silence I told her how he looked at my
blood stained legs and called me a whore, “Just like your mother!’’
I explained how my mother took the gun that my father always kept
behind the kitchen door, “Don’t do this to your daughter Rodrigo,
apologise – now! Don’t make her pay for what’s wrong between us.”
Then she lifted the gun just like my father had taught her to, my father
who took great American hunters to shoot wild animals instead of
marrying my mother. My mother closed her eye. My father smiled and
then he slapped me. From where I landed under the table I heard the
shot. He collapsed next to me, his cheek in the black blood that poured
from a hole in his head and soaked his hair. His eyes were open but he
didn’t see me. I touched the tuft of hair under his lip.
If the fridge had been full my mother wouldn’t have needed to fi ll it.
If the Tip-Toe Men hadn’t whispered their brandy fi lth and whisky
lies, my father wouldn’t have slapped me. If they hadn’t snaked their
way down the dark passage to my bedroom, my father wouldn’t have
tried to leave. If I had kept my knees squeezed together and my arms
dead-stiff across my chest, my mother wouldn’t have shot my father.
If my father had not slapped me, my mother wouldn’t be trying to kill
Lucy and I hide under Amberlade’s bed when a police car escorts a
social worker to our boarding house. Amberlade stands in the doorway
and stares at the short policeman and the social worker. The cop says,
“Where’s Ms Cox?” Amberlade shrugs her shoulders. “Ha! That one!
She’s long gone. Left this morning, then her sister took the brats this
afternoon, they’re going to an uncle.” The social worker stomps up
to our empty room anyway, she walks back down the stairs and asks
Amberlade if there are any other children living here. Amberlade shakes
her head. “Thank God,” she says.
If we can fi nd Amberlade’s doctor friend he will help Lucy. He will
give her a grape sherbet lollipop and while she’s trying to remove the
paper, he will shake his head at the swollen rash between her legs. If I
close my eyes and concentrate I can hear the hadedas, and if I use my
imagination, I see my mother’s eyes crinkle with happiness and my
father pulls us all into his arms.
I close my eyes and I sing along with Dolly Parton, Mommy and daddy,
can I sleep here with you ’cause Jeannie’s afraid of the dark. I swallow just
two of the pink pills.
Death by Chocolate / by Francoise Lempereur
So it is that I came to be lying on a beach in the Seychelles, the
quintessential tropical paradise that I yearned for. My father’s death
afforded me such an opportunity. Not so much afforded, as provided (in
death, as in life, he was tight-fi sted in all respects).
“Was his death sudden?” I repeatedly asked. I fi nd the question quite
disconcerting. Isn’t death always sudden, even when it’s ‘expected’, in
the form of a terminal illness? Yes, his death was sudden, for me. I had
wished it so many times in my childhood that the fi nality of it seemed
Our relationship was fraught with drama, to say the least. He was a hard
and brutal man, big and violent, both verbally and physically. His verbal
assaults left indelible scars on my fragile little psyche, while my face still
bears the scars of his violence. I spent most of my childhood fearful and
in pain, awaiting the next blow. The saddest thing is that I never knew
that he loved me, or I him (love is not supposed to hurt, right?) until
he died. I was present moments after he had passed. I held his huge
hand, still warm, but uncharacteristically still. I felt only regret for what
relationship we didn’t have, and immeasurable sadness for the torrid one
that characterised my life.
It was his death that transported me back to my childhood, in an attempt
to reconnect a moment of joy. I did. Being at the seaside on our annual
holiday, trawling behind him over rocks, bucket and fi shing net in
hand. Happy days indeed.
Sun, sea and salt on my skin soothe me still. Books always as my
companions. Another happy trigger memory. Going to the library with
my father. He gave me my love of books. I’d forgotten that. Every
fortnight I enthusiastically accompanied him, fi rst to the children’s
library, then to the ‘big’ library. A habit I continue to this day, which
thought occurred to me as I took my own three young children with me
to the library, just prior to my departure.
Ironically, only now that my father is gone am I able to recall the good
also. I was too pre-occupied with defending myself until then. So, it
wasn’t all bad. The hostile environment of my childhood, characterised
by my father’s drinking, was accompanied by his concomitant violent
rage. He was an ugly drunk.
I learned to remain invisible. Not to feel, not to be. And then to leave
altogether for fear of incurring his wrath, as my mother seemed to do
for no apparent reason. She didn’t even have to say anything to sustain
a beating. I spent most of my childhood fearing for her safety, wondering
what would happen to me if he killed her, wishing he would rather kill
It was horrible. And very, very frightening. It wasn’t that bad in
physical terms, relatively speaking, Oh, the beatings were regular, and
largely unforeseeable, but the insidious emotional neglect was far more
damaging in terms of keloid scarring on my little heart. The scars I carry
with me; two failed marriages being a testament to my lack of success in
relationships with men.
I recall him sneering at me, willing me to defy him, to which occasion
I naturally rose. The chocolates haunt me still. My father had received
a package of Belgian chocolates from my grandmother, and he had
hidden them in the vegetable drawer of the fridge. To my delight, I
fortuitously came across them one afternoon, and simply could not
resist. I ate some. They were sublimely delicious. I felt like those girls in
the TV commercials; eyes closed, dreamy expression, soft focus frames...
But I lived to forever regret those short moments of sweet pleasure.
Unbeknownst to me, my father had counted the chocolates. Dinner
was traumatic in and of itself; nothing was ever done to his standard of
perfection, and being fuelled by whisky, his scathing criticisms cut to
the bone. My mother, increasingly disempowered and docile, sat silently
swallowing tears along with her food, attempting to hide her pain from
my ferret eyes, which missed nothing. Children see everything.
I firmly believe that my adolescent eating disorder was rooted in these
traumatic mealtimes, and was not so centered on my trying to control
my world, as the psychologist told me, although there is clearly merit in
that argument. Back to that dinner. He opened the box, unwrapping
the tissue paper and looked inside. To my horror, I realised that he
was counting the chocolates. As his face blackened with that familiar
expression of blind fury, I felt his huge hand strike the side of my
small, blonde six-year-old head. I fell off my chair and remained on
the ground, cowering for cover under the table. I have a very clear
understanding of what beaten dogs must feel like.
As I said, however, it wasn’t the physical beatings that hurt me the
most. What he did thereafter hurt me forever. First, he hurled a torrent
of abuse at me, humiliating me in front of my beloved grandmother.
Then, every evening after dinner, he would ceremoniously open the box
of chocolates and hand one out to each member of the family. Except
me. He would look at me, sneering, and pointedly exclude me. The
memory still hurts. I felt so small, so rejected, so fi lled with contrition,
remorse and guilt. If only I hadn’t... I couldn’t enjoy chocolate for
many years thereafter without being haunted by that very public
humiliation. It seems trite, I know, but to my six-year-old self, it was one
of those defi ning moments that change you forever. Then there were the
times he forgot to collect me from my dancing class. I had to go home
with my teacher. These were pre-mobile phone days, and I had no way
of contacting him, or of knowing where he was, or if he would show up
at all. Again, the pain of humiliation and rejection, as she tried to coax
me to join her family for dinner. I refused, tears rolling down my little
face, feeling unloved and unwanted. He’d been drinking with his mates,
and simply forgot. I eventually stopped dancing. ‘A mistake’ was how he
termed my existence, and I verily believed my existence to be so, until
now, my fortieth year.
I was thus taught not to feel, not to speak, not to be. It’s hard to come
back from that place. But who am I, but for my girlhood experience? We
are all products of our past, like footprints in the sand, it leaves its mark,
but it needn’t be indelible. That is a choice. “Everything happens for a
reason,” echo the words of my wise young daughter.
The events of my girlhood served me well in as much as I am strong and
resilient, able to withstand the blows that life ministers with alarming
alacrity and randomness. Yet, as I learnt through death, there is always
good to be found in this extreme sport of life. You just have to look for
And so it is that I am sitting on a beautiful beach, dripping salty sea
water on my page, soaking up the sun, and having an experience of
enormous gratitude for myself, and my life.
Thank you, Dad. Oh, and I love you. I’m sorry we never said those
words to one another Rest in peace, both of us.