Moses in the Wilderness

By Abigail George

Sometimes Daphne imagined that wild Jenny was still in their house. Standing in the kitchen barefoot with her precocious two-year-old daughter underfoot.

Her daughter playing in the sitting room by herself, talking to the imaginary ‘Sandman’ or eating peanut butter out of the jar with sticky fingers.

Wild Jenny was a Catholic girl. Charlie never really confided in his older sister of how and when they had met. Charlie had always been a loner-introvert. Wild Jenny loved to ‘party’.

Daphne could still sometimes see wild Jenny with her beautiful long dark hair that she would wrap into a tight ballerina bun whenever she took a bath in the morning before she made her way to work downtown. There she was, Daphne would think to herself, wild Jenny with her daughter who had the same dark eyes and straight hair as her mother did. No curls in sight. There was wild Jenny making Sunday lunch. There was wild Jenny being a good mother. Those three years had gone by so fast. In the end, she had moved out with the tiny black and white television that had a hanger for an aerial that she had come with and all the material possessions that she owned in the world.

Everybody moved on in the house, even Charlie, Daphne’s brother who thought his world had come to an end when wild Jenny had left. And so, Daphne learned about fast love the hard way growing up. Her mother, Paula was surly, an unforgiving woman when it came to her daughters. Her father, Freddy was absent. Absentminded that is. Her sister, Maureen had high expectations for everyone around her. In her world, already as a teenager if you weren’t popular or beautiful or met any of the above criteria you were ignored. Left out in the cold. Daphne found patterns in everything when she was fighting with her mother. Rain came in waves. When her mother was screaming at her the rules of the Beach Boys exaltations.

Whenever the minister was praying at the Assembly of God church she sat tight-lipped and pensive during the service, mouthing the words of the hymns.

Growing up in Port Elizabeth, a seaside resort town where dolphins were the main attraction next to museums and the beaches she often felt lost. Told herself vehemently all the time that it didn’t matter that she felt lost now, it just didn’t mean that she would feel lost forever. She was never going to be a social butterfly and she made peace with that and the bullies that she met on the school playground during break who teased her posh voice. Her proper English. The way she rolled her consonants and said ‘Question?’ in class. She always knew she was different and her mother would tell her in no uncertain terms that different was good and that different was special but she never could quite believe it. She wanted to get away.

Leave South Africa. Go to the London Film School when she was 16 and never look back but that never happened. The closest she ever got to film school was the Newtown Film and Television School opposite the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. Johannesburg became a kind of flesh and bone home too in a way and she was surprised at just how quickly she became used to it. Walking up streets and down streets as if she owned them. She liked to pretend that the people who walked passed her minding their own business, going about their own way would see her and say, ‘Good morning,’ to her. Oh yes, the warped refrain of popular just didn’t seem to fit anywhere in Johannesburg. If her sister Maureen was America, then Daphne was Canada. Maureen was the pageant queen.

Daphne was attractive in her own way; unconventional looking is what people liked to say. She was never beautiful in the way her mother and sister was. It wasn’t that that made her feel bitter. Her sister had travelled to America when she was in high school on an exchange program. Came back with stars in her eyes. Daphne Woodward did not want to wake up one day and decide that today is the day that I want more out of life. So, when she was 19 she decided to leave home. For the longest time in Daphne’s short life tragedy had played itself out behind closed doors. Her mother and father fought bitterly over the years. There was that one night when they spoke of divorce in hushed tones.

The next morning the suitcase had mysteriously disappeared. In her mind, there was the day she was leaving. Her mother had given her a copy of President Nelson Mandela’s ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ before she had left (with the words ‘be safe my darling’ and a bear hug. By then Johannesburg was fluent in the backdrop of crime. Daphne knew that if she didn’t leave her safe, comfortable surroundings, her sheltered life where exactly would she fit into the world. How would she live, eat without knowing what the rest of the world looked like, tasted like even? Johannesburg was an omelette but Port Elizabeth was French toast. She wanted to feel like an atomic sugar babe not claustrophobic wallflower.

She learned what the words ‘pornography’ and ‘pornographic material’ and ‘pornographic images’ meant from living in Johannesburg. Daphne took a room at the Salvation Army and she put her mind to it never to feel homesick. She was deprived of the wealth and luxury that she had grown up with. The food wasn’t bland but it was nothing to write home about. There was a cook, Wilson. As African as chicken feet, morogo (a kind of wild spinach), mopane worms and ‘chicken and rice’. Midday the Salvation Army served polony sandwiches. Breakfast was traditional. Bacon, eggs and toast. Every supper there was butternut soup. Orange and delicious.

There were days when she felt terrified. She didn’t want to go home. Didn’t want to be branded a failure.

At night, she washed the t-shirt that she had worn that day, her bra and underwear in the sink in the bathroom. She wore jeans daily.

She walked up streets and down streets until it became a part of her soul. Until her leather sandals were falling apart and she had blisters on her feet.

Her dreams were punctuated by her shopping in malls. Walking down sanitary aisles in supermarkets. In her dreams, she would buy clothing off the rack and expensive perfume. She could swim through windows into the sea in her dreams. She ate ice cream in her dreams. There was always some kind of drama playing itself out in her dreams. One night there were crocodiles in her dream sunning themselves on the bank of a river. Gigantic snakes in another. In another she dreamt she was touching her breasts waiting to be seduced. In another she kissed a girl, younger than she was. In the dream, they were both high school age dreamers who did not fit in.

Daphne felt sad. Moved by grief. Listening to Eric Lasseter’s stories of growing up rich and then his father losing everything (through gambling, alcohol, drugs) and then growing up poor. She felt as if she was slipping into the role that she was meant for. The same role that her mother played when she had met her father. The same roles her maternal and paternal aunts had played when they had met their future husbands. Yes, roses were red and violets were blue. She could see it now. The garden that had healed her mother’s soul. The house painted the colour of river sand with a fence, in a gated community, with an intercom, children playing on the lawn in front with their puppy, a spaniel. Daphne remembered when her mother was booked off for stress. It had got so bad that she had landed in the ICU for it.

She remembered her mother lying there in her own room putting on a brave face. She remembered that she was small but tall for her age, stroking her mother’s hand, telling her to ‘get well real soon, mum’ and ‘we all miss you’ and ‘we all really, really, miss your cooking’. Daphne’s dad was not a bad cook but he was forgetful. Forgetful of cereal in the morning. Forgetful of his own wife’s needs, wants and desires. Forgetful of dropping his kids at school, for swimming lessons, rehearsals for the school play, fetching them from workshops run outside of school. Now there was no reason for her to feel alone anymore. She had Eric. His friendship made her feel whole.

She felt a kind of sexual impulse that night rising within her after the night she dreamed about kissing a girl. She felt exhilarated. She had never been attracted to women before even in high school when she had kept to herself. Everything about being gay, trans, lesbianism and homosexuality she had learned from television and cinema. Of course, even then it did not cross her mind that she was gay. Could she be? No. She was in love. Head over heels, with every regret that she had ever had as a quiet adolescent under rug swept. Daphne was in love with Eric. He could do no wrong in her eyes. Not even when he took it upon himself to search the handbags of the African women who worked at the Salvation Army. She would watch him.

His adroit movements. His carefree manner as he handled those women as if he had every right too when Daphne knew in her heart that that kind of behaviour was reprehensible and patriarchal. Over time she didn’t know what she was in love with really. All this time it seemed she had only started to go out with Eric because of her ego. Days passed. Something was amiss. Daphne liked the ‘idea’ of having a boyfriend who was so different from her but what did he really know about culture. Her culture (Malay). Her traditions and heritage were more than spicy food, street food, tomato bredie, samosas and lamb curry. Fish and chips. Melt in the mouth calamari. Snoek. Thinking of food reminded her of home and it seemed to comfort her. Sate her thirst.

‘You can’t have had it easy.’ Daphne looked into Eric’s eyes in a mall restaurant. She had met Eric at the Salvation Army. They had smiled at each other while filling crates with overripe summer fruit. Papaya, mangoes, grapes, berries in season. He made the first move. Asked her out. They walked the short distance to the restaurant. Those days Daphne walked everywhere. His eyes were brown. No hazel. She decided they were hazel with little flecks floating around inside of them. I mean he was beautiful to look at but he was nice enough to talk to her. To let her inside his thoughts. It’s a dream. It’s a dream. She thought to herself.

‘No,’ he said. ‘Life is not meant to be easy anyway. I mean, I’m okay about it. My sister. She’s in Australia now. She has like five children or something like that.’ Eric Lasseter smiled showing his perfect teeth. Daphne did not have perfect teeth. Daphne had an overbite from biting her nails in primary school.
‘Tell me more about you. About your life. How you of all people came to be here?’ Daphne wanted to know more about him. He was still a complete mystery to her.
‘My baby sister is studying genetics at WITS. I’m really proud of her.’ He brushed his hand through his hair. Daphne told herself. Cool it. He just wants to be friends. Nothing is ever, ever, ever going to come of this. (She forgot that he had never answered her question in the first place).

At that moment in time Daphne felt tiny flames inside of her being lit like birthday candles. She felt kind of like a birthday girl. That everybody had just shown up to see her and brought her presents wrapped just because she was special. Daphne Woodward had never felt special in her life. Not when she chosen as the lead in her school’s house play (she had gone to an all-girls school). Not when she had been chosen as the Quiz team leader. Not when she had been chosen as the editor of her school magazine. Not when she had won first prize in a nationwide creative writing competition but Eric Lasseter, now he knew how to make a girl feel special.

To Daphne Woodward, a Coloured girl from Durban with her light green eyes, and plain as paper brown hair Eric Lasseter was perfect on the surface. He leaned in towards her as if he meant to kiss her but her reached out and ran a finger over her bottom lip. Daphne’s eyes lit up. ‘You’re pretty. I don’t know if that embarrasses you. I mean we just met and everything. I mean it’s just that I think you’re really pretty. You’re unlike any girl I’ve ever met.’ said Eric. He said the words slowly as if they were filled with hope, expectation and anticipation. Daphne knew then that there was a spark between them. It was now or never. This was an opportunity. Her chance to shine. Her first chance at having a relationship with not a boy but a man. Eric was in his thirties.

That’s what he had told Daphne. Daphne was 19-years-old but age didn’t matter to her. Daphne was hellbent that it wouldn’t stop her from falling in love. In Eric’s arms Daphne Woodward felt invincible against the world. She felt they were a team. She felt important, powerful and beautiful all at the same time. She felt wild and free like water in wild places and she wanted to have that feeling go on forever. In Daphne’s mind, she was so in love that she wanted to settle down and marry Eric. He was that kind of guy, she thought to herself. He didn’t seem to have a problem with commitment Daphne figured. He was just so warm, sweet and funny. He was good to her. Sincere. It didn’t matter to her that he had two children.

A girl and a boy who lived with their mothers. Who he didn’t see. Daphne had it all worked out. They would get married in the garden right here at the Salvation Army in Simmonds Street in Johannesburg. They would go to a hotel in Hillbrow for their wedding night. Money was tight and they would return the following day and move into their ‘new home’ at the Salvation Army. Daphne was saving herself for ‘the one’. Eric Lasseter was ‘the one’. She would be Mrs Eric Lasseter. She smiled. Her cheeks grew warm when she thought about sex. Eric taking her in his arms as his wife this time in a tiny hotel room. Marriage would mean more than a good night kiss. It would mean stability. Kids.

Popular isn’t everything is the lesson that Daphne wished she had learned from her mother. For as long as Daphne could remember she had had a love-hate relationship with her mother. She grew up constantly thinking that Charlie and Maureen were the chosen ones. Confident, happy children who grew into confident, happy adults with a self-concept. All of Daphne’s life she had always had an internal struggle with everything. Teachers, subjects, schools, exams, authority figures. She was clever but every girl was clever and nice in their own way in her classes at school and as she rose to be a leader and not a follower her world instead of growing became smaller and smaller. In high school, she didn’t feel as if she was in a good place.

A safe place. She still felt sheltered and bored. She achieved and achieved and achieved gloriously. She felt her mother and sister, Paula and Maureen, living vicariously through her. She could already see the visions her father had of her, for her as a skinny, her-psychological frame-tested-all-the-time 14-year-old. ‘Oh, Daphne, you’re a real intellectual like your father.’ Paula said once in passing but it had stayed with Daphne. Her mother made it sound as if she would never amount to much as a woman. A marrying woman. A woman who would have children. Sons and daughters. A woman who would end up becoming a wife, lover, then a mother.

‘I’ve always wanted to hide away from the world. From men. From women. I don’t know why. It is just not in my nature, my DNA to trust people. I think it stems from the all the relationships with women that I’ve had in my life. My mother. My paternal grandmother. My father’s mother. My aunt Babs and her sister Belinda. Older women.’ Daphne sighed and stared at her nails. She and Marie who was on holiday from school (Marie’s mother worked at the Salvation Army) bored stiff, decided to paint their nails that morning. Eric nodded as if he understood. He must be the only man in the universe who understood what she was saying. Daphne looked across at him. He really was the beautiful one in this relationship.

Golden hair down to his shoulders. Perfect nose, teeth and mouth. Lean and toned in all the right places. Long fingers. Sensitive hands. At the end of the night after they had put the old patio chairs away after sitting on the grass, he would pull her in close in a warm and tight embrace and kiss her good night. That was the highlight of her day. She had never had a real boyfriend before coming to the big city with its bright lights. She had never been frightened really of coming out of her shell or being on her own. She never gave being taken advantage of a second thought. She forgot about everything when she was in Eric’s arms. He was so capable. Capable of doing anything he wanted to. She believed in him. She would whisper in his ear. He would kiss her harder then, brushing his hands across her back that gave her shivers down her spine. She knew it was wrong.

Wrong of her to fall in love with someone who was not the same race she was. Eric was an Afrikaner. Her father, no, her family, her mother more importantly would frown upon it. Didn’t she just have an argument with her mother the other day about Eric on the telephone when she phoned home. Excited and wanting to share her news with the world she had met a Viking god lookalike except he didn’t look like her. His olive skin was from catching too much sun hauling crates from the Salvation Army trucks that went out to Woolworths to pick up the perishable items like chocolate, meat, and fruit. People came from all over Johannesburg. Other churches to collect these items. Johannesburg was the first time and place that she had kissed anyone.

She was such a baby then. An innocent who would always be stupidly innocent in a babyish way. All her life she had been flying under the radar. She never caught anybody’s eye. Never went to her Matric Dance. Nobody had asked her but in Johannesburg she was a socialite. Moving with a dynamic pack of men where she worked as an intern at a television production company. Men, and boys with hungry looks on their faces and the sexual impulse in their eyes were staring at her. Starting to notice her. Talk to her and she became so enamoured by the attention. She felt like they worshipped the ground that she walked on. She felt adored and noticed for the first time in her life but she didn’t know why. How could she? She didn’t yet have any life experience.

On a day in March, Daphne looked at her reflection in the mirror. She was going out that morning for a very important interview. A trainee position. She had served coffee and hot chocolate at the Windybrow Theatre one night in Hillbrow and she had got into conversation with a young woman who worked in the entertainment industry who had told her to phone her. Something might be opening up really soon (Daphne in all innocence thought it would mean a real position, when she showed she was interviewed by a producer and ‘this very nice lady’ and after months of hard slog of making phone calls, coffees and photocopies she overheard that ‘that volunteer is a real hard worker’). Afterwards, crying in the bathroom she remembered the morning that she had set out to the company.

At that point in time she would have given anything to be beautiful like ‘pageant queen’ Maureen. To feel loved and accepted. To be given attention. For all the men in the club to watch her seductive moves on the dance floor. She brushed her hair. Brushing all the unruly curls out of her hair in one fell swoop with the brush. ‘You could be more beautiful if you tried,’ she told herself. By this time, she knew she was a clever girl who was intense. ‘Is she always this intense?’ her father had told one of the teachers in her high school had asked him at a Parent’s Evening. Her was proud of her. Although he never said it. In a way, Daphne could see it in his eyes. Eric had made her feel safe in a way she had never felt before.

She just couldn’t explain it. She felt like the heat of a summer afternoon in his arms. She felt as if Johannesburg belonged to them. ‘Eric loves Daphne’. ‘Daphne loves Eric’.

She didn’t have much money but she ‘owned’ this city. If Daphne did not walk in Johannesburg, she took taxis to get to where she needed to go.

She walked through Park Station in Braamfontein. No, she waltzed. She did not walk. She waltzed.

The rest of her life depended on it. Film school. This was her dream. A dream she had to abandon when she was expelled from Newtown. Insubordination. Flagrant disregard for the rules. Oh, she had tried her level best to not be her usual arrogant and bombastic self and lord it over the other students (nobody liked her) but she had failed miserably. She looked in the mirror again. She didn’t know if she looked good but since her arrival in Johannesburg she had found a new boyfriend who was handsome (Eric Lasseter). So, she had to look good, right but she didn’t feel it. She was reminded again and again of men who looked at women who looked like her sister. Her clothes weren’t new. They were second-hand knock-offs. She had bought them right off the street.

At the Salvation Army in Simmonds Street Johannesburg she had found peace of mind, a new love and church. ‘You look beautiful.’ Eric mouthed when he saw her at breakfast. Men and women sat separated into groups at tables. They looked depressed but Daphne was gung-ho and cheerful. Eric made her feel beautiful. He told her that she was beautiful every chance that he got but she knew that he was just trying to get her into bed. Of course, her inexperience showed. No girl in her right state of mind would go out with someone like Eric. A drug dealer. An ex-drug dealer. She had got this idea in her head that she could reform him. She knew what sacrifice was. She had a boyfriend now. She could do this. Everything in her life had prepared her for this eventuality. No sweat off her back.

Daphne had fallen in love with cinematography long ago in the days of Daniel Day Lewis in ‘My Left Foot’. The era of Emma-Thompson-and-Kenneth-Branagh.

When she returned from her ‘sojourn’ in Johannesburg to care for her elderly parents there were times when she still could be found dreaming of Salinger, episodes of Quincy and Kojak.

Television shows from her childhood that had inspired her. In the good years, Daphne’s father, had been a doctor and her mother a registrar at the same hospital where Daphne was born.

Now in their retirement the three of them would drive to the beach daily. When the days were long, and hot it felt as if Daphne was reading ‘A perfect day for bananafish’ all over again.

George Botha’s boys were growing into adolescents finding their way in the world. He had been a well-known political activist in Port Elizabeth.

He died during the heyday of apartheid. He ‘fell to his death’. It was reported as a suicide in the newspapers and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

At thirty, Daphne thought more than once that if she, wild Jenny, had just hung on for another year her brother Charlie, the introverted savant would have made it.

Daphne did not know it then. The way of women. Their hunger. Her grandmother (her ‘Ouma’), her mother, her brother’s hot and fast and furious girlfriends.

Her sophisticated sister putting her roots down in faraway Melbourne, Australia. The land of kangaroo and digeridoo.

In those days, everybody gave America, the land of opportunity a miss for the land down under.

Once South Africa was a country in turmoil. Apartheid was the name of the game. It was a country divided but it was still Daphne’s country.

A country that she called home. Now it was different. Everyone was facing the days of Julius Malema facing the volcano.

The not so picture-perfect volcano parliament. ‘Party-tantrums.’ Daphne thought to herself. ‘This whole country was going up in unholy smoke.’

Here we go again, party-tantrums she thought to herself when she managed to sit down and watch the news with her parents.

The weather in Durban that year was hot and dry. It was so hot and dry that she could feel it in her bones. Taste it in her mouth. It was kind of making her feel light-hearted. As if she didn’t have any energy. As if she waking up from a long nap on the sofa in the TV room. Yes, she was hitting thirty. As she drove down the long freeway she thought to herself. She was always going to be Daphne, ‘the owl’. Daphne, ‘the nerd with the posh voice who could smell the coffee in the morning’. Daphne, ‘Popeye’s Olive Oyl’. Skinny as a tick. Daphne, the ‘Moses in the wilderness’. She liked to think of herself as a pilgrim. Oh! She hadn’t been paying attention. She had taken the wrong turn somehow. What was happening! She was starting to remember her past.

Eric especially. She remembered the tearful breakup. It flashed before her eyes. ‘I can’t see you anymore. I’m getting back with Carleen Visagie. She was my first everything.’ Was she still on the road. Daphne couldn’t see very clearly now. It was too dark. The world went black and from far away she could see a familiar figure walking towards her. Holding out his hand. Her smiled. Of course, it was Eric but what was he doing here in her dream. It felt like a dream. Everything was warm and kind of fuzzy. His face. She couldn’t really see his face all that clearly because of the tunnel of light. It was bright. Too bright. She waited a few seconds for the disorientation to pass and when it did she reached for his hand.

‘Where have you been stranger? I’ve been waiting all these years for you,’ he said, smiling at her.

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Abigail George

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