Well, this is a very old story. I wrote it on paper (!) while I was backpacking around South East Asia fresh out of high school. A coming of age story for a coming of age experience, I suppose. I recently rediscovered it going through some old USB sticks and have decided to clean it up a bit. It’s quite different, I think, than what I write now, but the learning curve is (for me at least) interesting to see. At the time of writing my penchants for over-the-top allusion to any and all literary canons – I borrowed and reworked several literary figures for this particular story, sometimes obviously, sometimes not – lesbian leads, and getting carried away with my descriptions are even more blatant than usual. The writing itself is also, I think, much more earnest and open. But I guess being 18 will do that to you.
Anyway, if you’re feeling like a (possibly overly) poetic, queer Bilgungsroman, read away!
1.1 The Family
Jane wasn’t a beautiful child, only pleasing enough to be plain. But she was the only child on that city block and every child is beautiful in the eyes of those who are no longer so young and have lived alone.
Growing up in her mother’s boarding house had made Jane practical by nature. She could cook porridge and coffee and balance her mother’s books. She knew how to soak bloodstains in cold water and feed dozens on very little.
As a child she never lacked for playmates. There were aunts and uncles, grandfathers and grandmothers galore, their faces changing but never leaving (There was even, at times, talk of a great-aunt, real blood relative, but Jane never gave it much thought, this great aunt never having actually made an appearance).
Actresses, stopping for a quick rest on the road to fame, would sit her in their laps and show her how to use all those pots of paints and powders that spilled from their bags. As they did, they talked of people like Luther King Jr. and Gandhi and of changing the world as easily as they changed their faces. Hippie girls, with swinging dreadlocks full of plastic and porcelain, taught her to knit sweaters and crochet perfect squares as their thin moth-fingers read her fortune in packs of cards and drew twisting henna veins on her arms and hands.
These were her aunts.
Gangly boys with sunburnt noses, working in construction to save money for the college they’d eventually get to, taught her the tunes of songs her mother sometimes hummed. They spoke quickly, enunciating with a wave of their still skinny arms. Vivaldi, Chopin, Dvorak. She collected names and dates, fugues and rondos like bottle caps, secreting them away for later. Boys with muscles too big for their skin, not fooling themselves about higher education, who would stagger and shout at night, brawling and violent, would lift her up and swing her around and ever so patiently show her to kick a soccer ball or knee another man in the balls; to play pool or to poke out another man’s eye.
They were her uncles.
Her grandmothers would smuggle her sweets, cooing and combing her hair. Cackling, they showed her how to brew the perfect cup of tea; and how to spill it on an unwanted admirer while still appearing calm, composed and graceful. They taught her to roll the most delicate and ladylike of spliffs, should she ever need it medicinally, for her joints of course.
Her grandfathers, pointing at her from across the table, would illustrate the best way to fix a carburettor or the transmission of a 1920s Rolls Royce. They drew diagrams in their egg yolks of the life cycles of ferns and mosses, and lectured on the poetry found in limestone and slate and salt crystals. Professors of physics or mathematics, geology or biology, they were past their prime; no longer scientists, but shamans, describing the innards of their earth in chicken bones and oyster shells.
And so it was that she left childhood a fully licensed mechanic in all ways, except that she had no licence, and able to recite Byron as she slept, but never having met another human being of the same age.
When business was slow and there were few people to talk to, she would sit in the hall under the broad leaves of tropical plants escaping the poverty of their homelands for the fabled prosperity of the first world. She would tell them, in turn, the medicinal qualities of herbs and barks (grandfathers), or explain in all seriousness, her child-face solemn with concern, the socio-political problems perpetuated by female genital mutilation (aunts).
Eventually, the house plants of her mother’s guest house acquired a reputation with their neighbours as insufferable know-it-alls and found themselves socially ostracized. But, in keeping with the attitude of most haves to have-nots, they did not much mind and kept themselves to themselves.
As she grew older though, Jane let that habit drop, thinking it a bit silly, and left the plants with no source of new information and a reputation to keep up. It was very hard for them and many succumbed to pressure, their leaves browning and their stalks withering. In vain, Jane’s mother transplanted them into new soil and watered them religiously, wondering what on earth had happened. But nothing helped; there is no substitute for knowledge.
It wasn’t because of the houseplants’ untimely demise, however, that Jane left. It was because of a man.