POEMS: Notes from India and Pictogram

BY RAHUL D’SILVA

Notes from India

I

After school each day I eat mangoes
from the street vendor’s cart.
Salted unripe pieces – the tart taste
makes my lips smack and thirst
for something cold and fizzy.
We aren’t supposed to eat such snacks –
Germs! They say.
You’ll fall sick!
When we get home, we eat the sweet ripe slices.
The juice dribbles down our chins.

II

On Sundays, my grandfather prepares
his special biryani.
The smell of cloves lights up the house
until we can’t focus
on our games of cards.
He makes it his way,
thick and spicy,
till the day he has a stroke.
In the hospital the blood seeps into his brain
like cardamom wafting into the ceiling.

 

Pictogram

My penis a sleeping seahorse
curled against your thigh,
your breasts two mangoes
nestled against my chest.

POEM: You know it’s Christmas

BY CHRISTINE COATES

You know it’s Christmas when Dad buys watermelon,
when the south-easter blows
and there’s no parking at the beach
and sand’s in your teeth and in your ears —
sand is everywhere.

You know it’s Christmas when Granny boils tickeys
for the Christmas pudding
when the tomatoes cost ten times what they cost in November
and all the avocados are sold
and the Woolies queue stretches around past the frozen chickens.

You know it’s Christmas when Boney M plays incessantly
in every shop and on all the radio stations
and Gran is making pickled fish
because the yellowtail are running
and the trekkers are pulling them in on the beach.

You know it’s Christmas when the baboons raid the fig tree
and you have to quickly pick the green ones
to make fig preserve
and the white butterflies come
and Christmas beetles fly into your ear at Carols by Candlelight.

You know it’s Christmas when the brass band and singers stroll
up the street and stand outside your house until you give them money
when it rains softly just because it’s Christmas Day
and then the sun comes out and you can go to the beach
and play on the lilos and body boards you got as presents.

You know it’s Christmas when you can smell the rubber of a new doll
or when you smile at the mother-in-law through clenched teeth
because she gave you tiny purple bunches of grapes as earrings
and you know the shirts she gave her son
he won’t wear
but at least the kids like their new clothes.

POEM: The Elder

BY ESTER LEVINRAD

In memory of my great-grandmother

Marbled rolled beef, veined with crushed peppers,
Raw onions:
Bitter foods.
And you, the elder on those streets
By bus or bicycle
In your furs, hats, and good jewellery;
Our link, our line, our right of passage, of possession:
A scrabbling tribe from furthermost south.
Our English names, our foreign longings,
But you, the matriarch, at home.

An aperitif in the Nordic gloom:
Strong liquor in small glasses.
The lure of the evening news,
The latest royal scandal
Fed on butter and dark rye.
And you pronounced on all you saw:
The son’s weakness. His upright wife, innocence.
Our dramas, or the Queen’s.
Earl Grey tea, subtle fragrance in thin cups,
Served with sugar-cubes, milk, or lemon.
But coffee in a flask, the bitter edge,
Always at hand.

Glass bottles of Martini, schnapps, Ribena for the children;
Pastries sliced half-ways.
Or cheese soufflé, spiced frikkadels:
You’d learnt foreign ways,
Walked the kasbahs, and the Bo-Kaap.
Good shoes could take you anywhere,
But gloves were “too affected”.
A leather cigarette case, sheepskin slippers,
A box of snapshots from Morocco
With one of you, in silhouette.
An amber ring worn through:
Auf wiedersehen, adieu, adieu.

FICTION: Investigative Journalism

BY SAMANTHA GIBB

“I’m sorry about your dad, man” Steve said. We were sitting in the library, researching for our next assignment. The topic being one of our own choice; and naturally I used what happened to my dad as a topic. Steve decided to do something else about elephants, but I never saw him researching. I never really saw him anywhere other than where I was; we were pretty close — more so when we went to the same college together. Here, with thousands of students milling about like ants in constant motion, Steve and I had each other. I guess we may have been loners, and for some reason Steve was particularly unpopular, as in high school. People had the tendency to just ignore him, really. I sighed and closed the book. “It’s history, Stevie. It’s not like we were close or anything, and there’s a great story in it, I just know it.” Steve shakes his head and smiles. “You’re going to make a great journalist, Will. Using your own personal drama as a story; nice.” I can’t tell if he’s being sarcastic or not, but I don’t mind. He has a point; I will be a good journalist someday.

I don’t remember much about my dad; he died when I was six. Or, rather, that’s what my mother had always told me; until I turned 16. For some or other unknown reason, it was then that she decided to tell me the truth; 10 years late. I never missed having a father — I was a pretty solitary child, and when I met Steve in high school I was pretty much sorted for company for the rest of my life. My mom came home from work one evening while I was doing homework. It was late (past 10 I think; she always worked double shifts at the factory) and I had just finished telling her what Steve (who she had never met) and I got up to during the day when she cleared her throat and said, “I have something to tell you. It’s late, but you need to hear it.” Statements like these never really surprised or intrigued me; I guessed it was something to do with her newest boyfriend. “Your dad had an accident.” I rolled my eyes, she was going to tell me how he died again; she could be pretty odd, this woman. I looked back at my books and said, “You’ve told me this before, Mom. I know the story, okay?” She shook her head slowly, eyes filling with tears, “No, I mean he had an accident today.” This last statement, I will admit, had me rather confused.

Long story short, my father never died. It turns out he was institutionalised when I was six – a paranoid schizophrenic. My mother, not wishing to burden me with this information, decided the cover story was necessary. He was prone to violent attacks, and if her word was anything to go by, the final count was when he tried to smother me in my sleep — prompting my mother to have him declared insane and shipped off. It was pretty dicey stuff, none of which I can remember. The accident, apparently, involved him trying to cut his own ears off at dinner; to stop the voices. My mother relayed all this information carefully, as though she thought I might explode or something. The truth was; I was not particularly interested. When you live almost your entire life thinking someone you can’t remember is dead, only to find out otherwise; it is not as emotionally distressing as you’d think; he’s still dead to me. I think my mother was both relieved and somewhat confused by my reaction – or lack thereof. Steve understood, though; maybe it’s an age thing or a gender thing. Either way, I’ve still never seen my father (visits are discouraged, as “strangers” upset him), and so life continued as normal.

I’d basically forgotten about my father as the years went by, until a month ago. My mother called my dorm to let me know that he had passed away; apparently he killed himself, but there was an enquiry into possible abuse. This information did intrigue me. Studying journalism had opened my eyes to the injustices of the world, and my father’s death happened to coincide with a story we had to research about an elderly couple that were abused in their retirement home, and how family and friends did not know of it for a few years, because they had both suffered strokes (as a result of the abuse) and could not talk — or would not. It’s a sick world we live in. Following this story, my lecturer informed us that we were all to write and research an in-depth piece on some form of social injustice. The story would count as a major part of our final grade, and we were to use the upcoming vacation as an opportunity to do field work. I was pretty excited to be playing the part of investigative journalist. When I heard about my father’s situation, I decided to investigate the goings on of mental hospitals; how patients who are denied visitors and thus forgotten by society are treated. It seemed to be the perfect project.

So there we were, in the library researching paranoid schizophrenia and other such illnesses, when Steve brought up my father. I was more than a little interested in what I read. There were so many different aspects from the well-known and over dramatised “hearing voices” or seeing people that didn’t exist, to the equally popular “split-personality disorder”. It was all part of a disease that an estimated 12% of the world’s population suffered from, exact causes unknown. Treatment varied from light therapy and medication, to electro-shock therapy, to constant sedation. Many cases were untreatable -like I said: dicey stuff.

Steve was adamant that all this research was morbid, and would play tricks on my mind. I agreed with him to a point; but it also fascinated me. Having taken a semester of psychology in my first year, I was definitely in my element. After too many hours of reading and noting everything about mental illnesses, we decided to call it a night. It was the last day of term, and Steve and I had plans to drive back home tomorrow. I’d need to pay a visit to the mental institution to do some interviews too.

We found out, however, that the chances of an interview were beyond slim. I decided, after hanging up the phone, that there was definitely something fishy going on; I’d not even used my real name (the associations with my father were to be avoided at all costs) but I was told it was strictly against hospital policy. I stared at the phone, feeling something great slip through my fingers. Steve looked as disappointed as I felt, when he suddenly said, “We need a plan.” I nodded slowly, thinking. My journalistic mind was ticking over, thinking about elaborate schemes of breaking in and seizing files. When I relayed these ideas to Steve he laughed and told me I had seen too many movies. I nodded, embarrassed that I brought it up. I was wondering if it was too late to find a new story when Steve smiled. “I have the perfect plan,” he said, “but I don’t know if you’ll like it.”

“You want me to get admitted?” I asked, not sure if he was kidding around or just plain crazy. He nodded. “You don’t have to go killing someone or anything. Remember, these hospitals have different sections. You call in and say you’re depressed and you think you’re a danger to yourself, blah blah. You need help for a few days, and would like to stay there. That way, you get to use your real name; they’ll think it has something to do with the death of your dead — that it’s pushed you over the edge.” Steve looked at me, hopeful, smiling broadly.

I shook my head. “There’s no way that would work, Steve; you’re crazy!” That was when, for what felt like the millionth time in my life, Steve convinced me using sheer brilliance. He produced an article (though it read more like an advertisement) about depression in teens and young adults. The only important passage, however, was located at the bottom, near a telephone number. “If you or anyone you know needs help, please don’t hesitate to call this number and arrange a visit with a doctor.” I laughed; it was perfect. Now all we had to do was make it work.

When my mother called to ask about my research (into the abuse of circus elephants) I told her it was going well; I’d been allowed to visit animal rehabilitation centres and would be undercover for a few days. She seemed satisfied and impressed by this, as I told her I’d call her in a week or so. Using Steve’s story as my cover (I knew my mother well enough to know she would have a fit if she know what I was really up to) I asked Steve when he planned on doing his own research. He spent so much time with me that he hadn’t started working on his own story. This wasn’t really new; the guy was pretty much a genius. He’d spend all his spare time hanging around with me (his parents were basically uninterested in him and let him do whatever he wanted to) never working or studying, but really just watching me do it; and then somehow he would do fine in all his tests and exams. It was strange that he never tired of being my shadow, though we were pretty similar, and I was damn grateful I had him. We were sleeping in some cheap motel which I paid for (Steve may be bright but he’s dirt poor, so I end up paying for everything) and had just called and arranged a meeting for myself and a doctor; I had informed the nurse that Steve would be bringing me. I was pretty excited that it had (so far) gone down so well; I had expected a hiccup, but as usual Steve’s plan worked out. I wondered what it would be like staying there for a few days, feigning depression; it would be the first time I would truly be on my own. I guess that’s a bit pathetic, my being 21 and everything. Steve didn’t seem too worried either way.

We arrived at the hospital on time for my appointment. As I paid the taxi driver, Steve started walking up to the main entrance. When I caught up with him I examined the place; it looked pretty nice. No barbed wire or grey skies with lightning. I realised I’d been expecting the Hollywood version. Instead, an old brick building (three stories with many windows) was surrounded by lawns and flowerbeds; the occasional person walking about or sitting on a bench. Somewhat relieved, I continued along with Steve, as we entered the building.

The interior was less glamorous than the exterior, but still respectable. It looked and smelled like an ordinary hospital: pale green walls and linoleum tiles on the floor that made our shoes squeak. The reception and corridors seemed to be deserted (no nurses or patients) with the exception of the nurse at the desk, busy with some paperwork. She looked up at me and smiled broadly. “May I help you?”

I smiled back, feeling less sure of myself and said, “We have an appointment with Dr Spalding.”

“We?” she asked, her eyebrows raised. I had forgotten Steve.

“Yes, sorry,” I said, turning towards him, “This is my friend Steve; I mentioned to Dr Spalding that he would be bringing me.” She looked at me carefully, ignoring Steve (who in turn ignored her after a small wave and smile).

“I see,” she said. “Dr Spalding hadn’t mentioned that.” Her voice was stiff, and she seemed to be avoiding my eyes. She stood up. “I’ll tell the doctor you’ve arrived. Have a seat over there.” She pointed to a line of white plastic chairs against the wall, and when I turned to thank her she had already disappeared, her shoes tapping and squeaking along the floor.

“What’s with her?” I asked Steve, who shrugged. He seemed to be pretty miserable, and distracted, looking down the corridor after the nurse.

After a few silent minutes, the nurse returned followed by two men. She pointed us out to the men, and then left again. The first man looked at me and said, “William? I’m Dr Spalding – we spoke on the phone?”

I nodded, standing up, my hand outstretched. “Thanks for meeting us,” I said.

Dr Spalding nodded, and indicated the man next to him, “This is my associate, Dr Kline. He was one of the doctors working with your father.”

Dr Kline shook my hand, “I’m very sorry for your loss.”

I shook my head and turned to Steve, who had remained seated. “This is my friend Steve, he brought me here.”

The doctors exchanged glances, and Kline nodded, a curious look on his face. Spalding, ignoring Steve (who was still, for some strange reason, angry and quiet) said, “Well, if you will just follow me,” he paused, turning back and saying, “You may ask Steve to come along too.” The doctors walked down the corridor, Steve and I following them, silently.

Dr Spalding led us into his office – I noticed his name on the door – while Kline proceeded past it. There was a large desk with two stately looking armchairs behind it. “Please, sit. Dr Kline will return shortly; he has gone to fetch the tape recorder – we need it for all interviews.” He smiled and indicated the chairs before us. I sat, indicating to Steve that he should do the same. Dr Spalding watched me closely – unnervingly – while I did this, and Steve sat looking decidedly sulky. Maybe he thought this plan was not working, or he was finally getting tired of everyone ignoring him. Whatever the reason, I turned to face the doctor, who had taken his seat, and stared at him expectantly. He had produced a notebook, and was scribbling in it already; I hadn’t even said anything yet. I was about to ask him what happened next when Dr Kline appeared, carrying a file, mobile phone, and recorder. He set the file down carefully in front of Dr Spalding, and then stood behind him, in the corner of the room.

Dr Spalding thanked Dr Kline, and cleared his throat. “So, William,” he said, “I understand from our phone conversation that you have been feeling depressed since the death of your father.” I nodded, trying to look sad, all the while excitement building up within me. “I have his file here,” Spalding continued, his hand resting on the file on the desk. My heart nearly stopped. A look at his file would be perfect for my report; my luck was changing. “I thought perhaps you would have some questions; it is also why I have asked Dr Kline to be present, as he knew your father best. However, before we get to that I have a few questions to ask you; standard protocol for someone in your situation, you understand.”

I nodded, wondering what the situation was; I was sure these kinds of visits were nothing extraordinary. They had an ad in the paper, for crying out loud. I looked at the man in front of me, waiting for him to continue. “Did these feeling of depression only start with the knowledge of your father’s death? You didn’t feel depressed or … odd before then?”

I shook my head, “No,” I said, “I guess it was the idea that my mother lied to me for so long; like I didn’t deserve to know. It’s quite a harsh thing to find out, suddenly.” He nodded, scribbling in his notebook. Kline remained silent, unmoving.

 

“And how did you handle the news? Did you cope; did you have a support system?”

I rattled my brain, trying to think of the right answer. I couldn’t admit that I didn’t care – it would blow my chances. I looked at Steve for support, and said, “Well, Steve helped a lot – he was there for me. We’re pretty close. He gets me.” Spalding nodded again, scribbling furiously. Kline shifted his weight.

“And how long have you and Steve been friends, exactly?”

I looked at Steve again, who said, “Eight years.”

I nodded and repeated, “Eight years now.”

Another nod accompanied by more scribbling. “How did you meet?” I wondered what this had to do with my fake depression, when I said, “We were both new in high school – we had moved and Steve had been transferred.”

Spalding looked at Kline, who in return stared at me, a sad look on his face. “Would you say Steve has been a good friend to you — a positive influence?”

This question threw me, and I said, “Look, Doc, I don’t mean to be rude but I don’t see what this has got to do with my being depressed; Steve just came to drop me off. If you want to know so much about him, why don’t you just ask him?” I was a little annoyed at these doctors, speaking to me like I needed to be an interpreter, and at Steve for letting me do it.

Dr Spalding nodded, looking at me. “You’re right, I apologise. Steve, what do you think is the cause of William’s depression?” I looked at Steve, hoping he would come up with a good answer, but he was silent; staring at the floor.

“Steve? Don’t be like that; answer the doctor.” Still Steve said nothing; looking at the floor, his face reddening. I opened my mouth to say something when he suddenly screamed, jumped up and stormed out the room. I was speechless, staring after him in surprise.

Both doctors were looking at me; seemingly undaunted by Steve’s reaction (I guessed that they saw worse on a daily basis) when Dr Kline said slowly, “William? Has Steve left?” I looked up at him, confused. What kind of mind games was he playing? I mean, that was a pretty dramatic exit.

“I’m sorry?” I ask, thinking I must have misheard him.

“Steve,” he says gently, “has he left? You’re staring at the door.” I look from him to Spalding, angry that they were messing around like that.

“Are you kidding me? I think it’s pretty obvious that when someone gets up and shouts, then walks out slamming the door that they have left.”

I start to stand up, about to leave myself (I read somewhere that Doctors are often the craziest bunch – being surrounded by mentally ill people all day rubs off on them) when Dr Spalding says, “William, I would like you to listen to something.” He has the recorder in his hand, his finger on the rewind button. I stood there, waiting for someone to admit they were playing a prank on me; utterly confused.

“Yeah, sure, whatever.” I said.

Dr Spalding set the recorder down in front of me, and pressed play. I listened to the tape then, both doctors watching me. I heard Dr Kline enter and set the recorder down with a thud, and Dr Spalding begin asking me questions. The tape was perfectly clear; every noise was audible. When it got to Spalding asking me how long we’d been friends, I heard only my voice: “Eight years.” Steve must have been muttering; I shook my head and continued listening. We were reaching the end of the tape; Spalding’s voice was addressing Steve, and then there was silence. No door slamming or yelling; just a pause, my pleading Steve to respond, and then Doctor Kline’s voice: “William, has Steve left?”

At this point I became truly angry; what the hell game were they playing? Dr Spalding leaned closer to me and asked, softly, “William, do you know that some mental illnesses, like schizophrenia, are genetic?” I stood up, enraged. “OK, this isn’t funny anymore! Did Steve put you up to this?” I was yelling, as I realised Steve would never do that. Maybe they were playing a prank on Steve. I started walking towards the door, and yanked it open, yelling “Steve! Where are you?” I was standing in the corridor, people coming out of offices to stare at me; doctors and nurses.

I looked back into the room, at the two doctors now standing in the doorway, as Dr Kline said, “William, I’m sorry. There is no Steve. He doesn’t exist.” It was impossible; Steve may be odd; an outsider, a loner often ignored – but he was real; he existed! Where the hell was he?

I was yelling at Doctor Spalding, accusing him of luring me into some sick game, when suddenly Dr Kline seized my arm and injected something into it, saying, “Don’t worry, son. This will help you calm down.” I was outraged that they would do something like this to me but I could feel myself getting drowsy and then I was asleep.

I was waking up, in a very bright room, when I realised I was restrained. I heard voices speaking from what could have been the room next door; a man’s and a woman’s. I strained to hear their words, and recognised the speakers as my mother and Doctor Spalding. He was asking her about Steve. Had she met him? No. had anyone else met him? No. How long had I known him? A few years. Had I had violent outburst before? No, but there had been complaints at school about odd behaviour, talking to himself; terribly antisocial. My brain filled with the scenes from earlier and I screamed in rage. I could hear shoes squeaking on linoleum as people hurried closer; as well as many voices.

The door of the room burst open and Dr Spalding appeared before me. “Easy, William! You need to calm down; you’ll hurt yourself like this and we don’t want that, do we?” I stopped; he was right. No point hurting myself. “Good man,” he continued, “now you and I need to talk. I asked you if you knew whether Schizophrenia was genetic? Well it is, William. It is; and judging by your “friend” Steve – who we have confirmed does not exist, we have reason to believe that you have it. I’m sorry, but you’ll have to stay here until we get a better hold on this thing. Now, I’ve spoken to your mother and she’s given permission to admit you, so when you calm down, we’ll move you to your room. If not, we’re going to have to sedate you again, do you understand?” He looked genuinely concerned. For the first time since I was a child, I could feel my eyes filling with tears. It wasn’t fair; it wasn’t right. I nodded. Spalding sighed and said, “Good, now I’m going to get some orderlies, and we’ll move you to your room.”