She walked and walked through the sleepy, quiet streets, struggling to free herself of the invisible cord that bound her to the town and its inhabitants. The cord that bound her so tightly that escape seemed near impossible and lifelong imprisonment a certainty.
Small towns, dorpies in the local vernacular, were the same everywhere, she supposed. Inquisitive old ladies twitched the net curtains as she walked past and abruptly averted their eyes when she chanced upon them at the beaten down grocery store on the corner. They couldn’t stand the sight of her, couldn’t look her in the eyes as if she was a decaying, putrid rat dragged in by the cat. Tolerated but not accepted. At times she fervently wished for invisibility, a renowned magic disappearing act or an enchanted cloak perhaps. A sad, hollow smile touched her lips. This was the wishful thinking of a child as it tried to avoid the omniscient gaze of its mother, choosing to hide away in an enchanted world where all was well and acceptance was automatically granted.
She lengthened her stride around the Queen Victoria circle. Not a circle really more like an inverted navel. A navel from which her life and that of the others slowly emerged in concentric waves; birthed, re-birthed, cyclical, unchanging. She hurriedly passed the church, the old Afrikaans school, hulking dark shop windows and neglected government flats.
She was born here, just like the other 350 or so inhabitants, bonded to the red earth by a pulsing umbilical blood. However, she was other than, different, an outsider.
Family names here meant that the genes of generations before her had distilled and purified in blood. Not that she possessed a family name. Her blood was not specific enough or socially acceptable or perhaps her distillation process was grounded in the wrong scientific method. She knew she would never be part of the inherited memories of this godforsaken town, never know the sense of belonging, the ease with which they conversed or socialized. Instead when they could not avoid speaking to her directly, she was treated like a simpleton, a mental retard, someone beneath their precious time. Her doctor’s degree seemed less than and subsequently her practice suffered.
Hindsight always seemed perfect, but she should have known better at the time and never returned. She had the opportunity of a better life, free of the small town’s hate filled nuances. Yet, she had chosen to come back; a noble idea of being able to give back to the underprivileged community her primary motivation. Now she saw that it was still approval that drove her here, although she thought she had dealt with it successfully in the many therapy sessions. The past would never stay buried in the red earth; molehills would erupt and ruin the smooth, well fertilized lawn. Apparently she still carried the pain as a seeping, septic wound within her soul and the ten years away had offered no healing. Time did not heal all wounds.
Her mother had fit seamlessly into the fabric of the town’s elite subculture. She was intelligent, a gifted athlete and stunningly beautiful. Her father was the mayor and her mother headed the church’s charity drives. Yet, the good deeds, the wealth and the acclaim were washed away in the flood of her mother’s “unnatural” desires. Eventually she too was shunned and ostracized because of me. They could not hide the fact that I existed. My father was sent away bruised and battered in the back of a police van, this they could hide and punishment was measured out in heaped shovels.
Since that day my mother walked around with a scarlet letter on her breast and an indelible blot on her soul. She would become known as “that girl”, as though her name had fallen through the cracks of the town’s memory, or as if it held a curse and could not be spoken aloud for fear of certain calamity befalling the speaker. She became amorphous; a nothing that still lived and breathed.
I found her one afternoon after school, hanging from the rafters, her thin ankles swaying in the slight breeze that came through the open window. The letter she left simply said that she could not face another day as an outsider. She could not face the taunts and the name-calling, the insistent whispers behind her back. I instinctively knew what this meant, being more of an outsider than she could ever have imagined. I was a half human, neither nor. At least she was wholly something, but I never knew or could puzzle out where it was that I belonged.
In 1967 my mother fell in love with a black man from the township, Joseph Mtshala. She was lily white, he was blackest night, and I am something in between…colored …neither nor….the perfect outsider.