Authors and aspiring writers are often advised to write what they know. I know this story well, because it happens to be true (or, at least, real). These events happened, although not exactly as related. Names and particulars have been changed to protect the guilty. (We’re all guilty of something; the question is, “What is it?”) The people on whom it is based are either dead or might as well be, having refused to have further contact with the author’s side of the family. In retrospect, it’s no great loss.
I am not good at sleeping. I no longer fall asleep and remain oblivious until dawn. I lost the ability; it slipped away with my early youth and childhood happiness, what little of that I once had. Being woken in the darkest hollow of the night by intense pain was an unwelcome change. “Pain” is such a small, ordinary word. It does not begin to describe the torment that raged under my ribs. In the half world between sleep and waking, my dream was of a parasitic vine growing into and through my body, wrapping its hard, thorny tendrils around my organs. Curling on my side, drawing up my knees protectively, had no effect. Sitting up quietly and carefully did nothing to ease my agony. The digital clock showed it was 01:18. I lay down again and breathed in and out, willing the pain away. The pain demon would not be discouraged by a few breaths. It was not going to be exhaled. Pete, his back to me, grey hair fluffed by the pillow, was breathing rhythmically. His lips made a soft popping sound. Sometimes at night, I put my ear close to his nostrils to check he is still breathing. Other nights, I tap or nudge him to stop his snoring. I shifted my position, not so quietly. The clock showed that ten slow minutes had passed. I wanted to groan; I wanted my sleeping husband to be aware of my suffering so I could tell him I was dying slowly. Pete was keeping me company as he has done for nearly forty years. I did not want to lift my head again to see the clock over the mound of his sleeping body. Looking at the time during my insomniac hours stresses me and makes it more difficult to fall asleep, but I wanted to see how much longer I needed to survive until daylight. Some mornings, Pete will let me know that he woke up at two twenty seven and then fell asleep again at four nineteen, a habit I find inexplicably annoying, like his tendency to give the exact time (to the minute) when asked for it. What purpose does this serve?
There is a special solitude felt at night when I imagine I am the only being alive. When insomnia haunts and I am alone in my head, I think of my two children, grown up and tucked up in their beds far away. It’s not that they are vast distances from me, but they are no longer here under the same roof as I. I picture their faces. I feel grateful for my comfortable home, my warm bed and that I am safe. It is my soothing night-time mantra. Focusing on this was helpful, I needed to keep reeling in my mind and pulling it away from the ball of pain in my abdomen. I did not let my mind delve into the dark side; that is where the real pain lies. If I let my thoughts wander there in the night, then I know no rest.
Unable to suffer on my own any longer, I roused Pete from his sleep by patting his shoulder.
“I have a terrible pain in my stomach. I can hardly move.”
Pete mumbled something inaudible, rolled over and groaned his way out of bed. He shuffled off to the bathroom, rummaged in the medicine cabinet and, when returning, handed me a box of paracetamol and a glass of water, like that was going to do the trick. This will require something stronger. As if it had never happened, he put his head down and fell straight back to sleep. I lay awake. The demon squeezed all thoughts from my brain until it was all of me. The hours were distorted by the darkness. I lay unmoving until I heard the first raucous squawks of the Hadeda ibises roosting in the yellow-wood tree. They shout and argue and bicker like an old married couple. I usually dread their morning clamour at first light. It is usually unwelcome, but I was relieved. There was little more than a suggestion of sunrise, but I shook Pete awake.
Before his eyes opened, I blurted out, “The pills didn’t help at all. My pain is worse.”
He is a good man and calm in a crisis, but his sleep fog has not cleared and he stifled a yawn.
“I will phone Dr. Dodd and make an appointment for you.”
“No, no, I can’t wait, I have been in agony since about one o’clock. I won’t be able to drive.”
I saw his brain click on.
“Okay we need to get you to the hospital”, he said, quickly pulling on some clothes and running a comb through his hair.
The short drive through the early mist was punctuated by my gasps and groans. I slumped in my seat, still dressed in my pyjamas. The touch of the seat belt across my belly was unbearable. Speed bumps and potholes have no respect for pain. I glanced at Sandy’s house as we passed, the curtains closed against the morning light. She is my ever-cheerful and dearest friend.
We live in a small African town in a country on the southern tip of Africa. The image that phrase conjures in the American mind is inaccurate: There are no grass huts and roaming wild animals. The houses we pass are secure dwellings for the middle-class residents of Hill’s End. Large tree-filled gardens, sprawling residences and a multitude of indigenous wild life populates our little town. High walls bristling with spikes, fences with razor wire and intimidating gates abound; necessary barricades against criminals. However, none were to be seen at this time. All was peaceful in the soft dawn light. Pete drove both as if he was in a tearing hurry and as if he was driving on eggshells. My silence, punctuated only by groans, is rare. I chat. I am a chatter. I chat to friends and strangers alike. Pete drives sometimes for hours at a time without saying a word (other than to give directions) and the narrative is provided by me. My stories habitually begin in the middle and then I go back and try to explain. As you shall soon find out, this one is no different …
The hospital staff welcomed my bent figure with bustling efficiency, even though it was at the end of a long night shift.
“On a scale of one to ten how bad is your pain?”
“Fifteen” I croak.
My eyes would not stay open, as if there would be less pain in the darkness.
I heard Pete’s voice: “If she says she is in pain, it must be serious. She doesn’t usually seem to feel pain.”
A jumble of bright light, muted voices and warm hands and then the welcome prick of a sedative-containing needle.
“Hello, Mrs Morris. Please open your eyes. You are in the recovery room and you are doing well.”
My tongue was dry and the weight of my eyelids immense. The ceiling was blank and unfamiliar, as was the kind face hovering above me. I experimented with turning my head, but I seemed to have no bones in my neck.
“I am Sister Ndlovu. I want you to take deep breaths, Mrs Morris.”
I woke again, as if dragging myself from a pool of quicksand. I was warm, cocooned in a soft blanket. Anxiety clutched my chest. I had never had surgery before. I had only ever been in hospital to have my babies. Being so far out of my comfort zone pushed me into the pit of my own thoughts. Years ago, menopause had brought me the unwelcome gift of anxiety.
The place to which anxiety sends me is What-If. What if I had followed my gut and stayed out of everything? What if I had insisted that Jenny and Sara sorted out their own disagreement? I know that I would be in a better place if I had. I fretted at trying to make sense of it all and I could not leave it alone. Little did I know that there was much worse to come. Where did this story start? Where will it end? I was ensnared in the middle of it, but maybe it all happened because Sara could never stick to anything and Jenny would never admit her wrong-doings. Our parents insisted that we all do some sort of higher education after we had finished school. As she was the youngest, there were different rules for little freckle-faced, red-haired Sara. Maybe Mum and Dad were tired from years of parenting. Hell, Jenny and Tessa gave them cause enough to be, before she was on the scene.
Having left for university when I was eighteen, I am unsure of the details of my younger sister’s instability as a young adult. I do know that at junior school, Sara was unhappy because she didn’t like the other children in her class (or they didn’t like her; probably both). Mum moved her to the junior section of the school where I was in high school. Sara again found herself in a ‘horrible’ class, but I was there; the pupils were not horrible, they were just an average group of girls. She never fitted in nor forged any real friendships. It should have been no surprise then, that when she left school and went to art school she was unhappy and was allowed to drop out and go home. For six months she just stayed at home and then started a teaching course. Eighteen months into this, although she was doing well academically, she was asked to leave. The official version, according to Sara, was that she was told she was not cut out to be a teacher. Dad and Mum were sympathetic and took her story at face value. I still do not know the reason why she was expelled, but I do know she always wanted to go home and stay with our ageing parents. I never understood the reason for this. For my part, as much as I loved my parents and their home, I was thrilled to be making my own way out in the world. I was independent and I was happy.
That is the introduction to Sara. Jenny’s story is different. Her mother, my aunt Molly, was diagnosed as schizophrenic when Jenny was about six years old. Jenny came to live with us because her mother was in and out of hospitals and institutions and was seldom stable enough to take care of her only daughter. Jenny’s father had long since emigrated, never to be seen again. So Jenny became like an older sister to us and, being eight years older than Sara, the two of them were never close and they were too far apart in age to ever fight as sisters do. Sara was only nine when Jenny left home to go to university. There was a lot of big sister/little sister affection between them, though. Jenny is a very complex person; smart, successful and very private. Not only is her mother’s mental illness a source of sadness for her, but she keeps other secrets too. She is a perfectionist, but she is not the good hardworking-to-achieve type of perfectionist. She is the put-up-a-smoke-screen-of-how-perfect-my-life-is-so-you-won’t-see-the-cracks type. It is a shield, but she also uses it to beat herself up and not allow herself to rest. Between her and the rest of the world is a very well constructed wall of defence. It is not obvious to the casual observer because she is so glossy and gracious and has a wicked sense of humour.
So we have Sara and Jenny, the not-quite sisters. Because of dropping out of college, Sara has a low paying, part-time job as a school secretary and her husband Thomas is in and out of work, mainly because he lacks staying power.
Jenny has a good, steady job as a librarian. Her husband, Melvin, dragged himself up from nothing. Through hard work, cheating the system and scheming (mainly cheating and scheming), he became a wealthy man. They live in a sprawling, tastefully decorated house in the suburbs and they bought a fixer-upper on the coast as a future retirement home. While Melvin was renovating the beach house, they offered to rent it to Sara and her husband at a nominal rent because Thomas was unemployed once again. At first, this seemed to work well. Melvin gutted the kitchen and bathrooms first and rebuilt them to make the house more comfortable. From the elevated position on the hill, the spacious home has a wide view over verdant coastal bush and out to sea.
[Continued in Part 2, since I have run out of space for this post ...]
Lead image generated by This Person Does Not Exist and edited with FaceApp