It is said that when I was born, which happened to be – either by coincidence or divine action – in the month of Ramadan, I refused to suckle during the daytime. But, to the chagrin of my more rational acquaintances, I do not believe in coincidences.
So, unlike my mother, who blamed my father’s premature death on the consequences of drink-driving, I know his death to be an act of fate. The adage ‘everything happens for a reason’ is always prominent in my mind, particularly in times of difficulty. And as I now look at my mother’s body swinging gently on a rope, I know that this is one such time.
She is dead, and quite obviously so: her feet dangle half a metre above the floor, with a balletic downward tilt; her black abaya, which reaches her ankles, trickles from her sinewy body like a drying river; her head is lolled to the side and facing downward, her eyes seemingly focused on a particularly curious point on the floor. Perhaps, on the brink of death, struggling against the tightening rope, she noticed a scuff-mark on the rug.
I know that I should, quite naturally, alert the police. But instead I move towards her and, standing tip-toed, I adjust the headscarf that has dropped to her shoulders, re-covering her hair.
Then, after carefully inspecting her ever-so-slightly clenched hands, I sit – quite nonchalantly – on the couch, for she had hung herself in the lounge, you see; and I reach to pick up the Quran that lay on the coffee table in front of me. My mother had, most likely, read from it minutes before taking the plunge.
I support the book between my lap and my hands as though consoling it for the horrors it was made to witness. I press down on it as if expecting the gold calligraphy on the cover to untangle and seep up through my fingers, looking for comfort.
But nothing happens.
So I open it, choose a passage at random and start to read aloud. Although I can neither understand Arabic nor read it fluently, I was, as a child, taught to vocalise the sounds that the various squiggles represent; it is those familiar yet unfamiliar cadences that I now recite.
The harsh syllables fill the room. As I listen to myself, I realise that Arabic elicits, with the main feelings of kindness and calmness, an undertone of perfidiousness.
I read on, with my mother’s body hanging in my eye-line, until the natural light starts to wane. I reach a familiar passage, and as my tongue stumbles over the words, I feel a knot, either as consequence of the passage’s familiarity or its severity, form in my stomach. I read over it a second time; the knot tightens. And then, in the habit of the masochism that had so afflicted most of my life choices, I read over the passage a third time.
But, before continuing, I feel it necessary to share with you how this penchant for masochist decisions has, on two previous occasions, greatly affected my life.
In the first case, it was the primary reason for my moving out of home. Our – my mother’s and my – house is the old three-bedroomed, wooden-floored sort in Crosby, just west of Jo’burg city. It is the kind of suburb that housed middle-class whites during apartheid but has since become an Indian area.
My mother, like most of our neighbours, was not fastidiously religious. She dressed appropriately and kept all the religious days, but more out of tradition than belief. She is – I mean was – normal; I am odd.
During infancy, when I would refuse to take nourishment during the fasting time and would spontaneously wail moments before the calls to prayer, I was generally known as a somewhat God-inspired child – either that or, as was whispered frequently enough, a child of the devil.
My parents paid no heed to such gossip, their relationship with God being dubious. But I realised that if I were fated to become some sort of prophet or messenger, then God – or the devil – had made the wrong choice, for I suffered, particularly in the presence of strangers, from severe shyness.
Surely, if God wanted to send a contemporary messenger to guide the people, this messenger would, as is said in our literature, have to be the summit of spiritual evolution, the source of wisdom, container of all knowledge, the example of faith and Islam, a true inheritor of the perfection of the Prophet Mohammed – that is, the perfect man.
I am very far from the perfect man.
So as a young child, when, on the odd occasions I had the urge to go outside and play, I would hear a voice in my head say Come to me instead, my parents took it to be the result of an overactive imagination rather than a message from the almighty.
I will let you know that it was not the bone-grating voice of a predator or demon. Now that I know it to be the true voice of God, I remember it to be a warm, coaxing sound.
However, in the timidity of youth, I would run terrified to my mother. And instead of forcing me out with the other boys, she would read to me.
My mother would sit beside me on my bed and draw me close to her. I relished the muted pillow-like inhalations and exhalations of her breath as much I savoured the stories. Her voice was soft, and it rose and fell with excitement as if she were divulging a secret to me. Despite her scrawny appearance, which was always hidden under a swathe of black material, she was, at those times, a comforting cushion.
But all that changed after my father died.
After his death, my mother, quite understandably, slipped into a deep melancholia. She wouldn’t leave the house for weeks on end. As her only child, I quickly took on the role of her protector.
She never fully recovered from this melancholy. For the first few months I relished being my mother’s only link to the outside world. I took pleasure in comforting her in the same way that she comforted me as a child. When she came to me terrified by the voices in her head – the voice of her lost beloved – I would soothe her with my own stories.
But as time passed, my mother’s melancholy became stifling. And although I knew the status of the mother in Islam, that the key to Heaven lies beneath her feet, I did not want to have the responsibility of caring for her for the rest of my life.
So, when the opportunity came for me to read medicine at the University of Cape Town, I – despite knowing full well the loneliness that my departure would bring to her – chose to put my desires above hers.
Amid pleas and tears, I slinked from the house and moved to Cape Town.
The second choice I made, which chiselled a deeper dent into my mother’s heart, occurred in Cape Town. It was also the first time that I had experienced uncertainty.
At varsity, sins circled before me like numbers on a spinning dartboard – and Taylor was the bull’s-eye.
I soon discovered that alcohol, once I had become accustomed to its dry, burning flavour, was a curative to my shyness. After a few drinks I could speak my mind – which being focused on the propagation of Islam – was an irony that neither I picked up nor apparently those with whom I furiously debated.
As though a one-night stand had grown into a relationship, alcohol became a steady feature in my life. And this, in turn, led to me experimenting with cocaine, which then led to Taylor.
Cocaine, if I think back to my time growing up, was used only on TV, by vagrants and by rock stars. I never knew anyone that had even seen the drug. And, as it wasn’t admonished as vociferously as alcohol from the pulpits, I felt no guilt about indulging in its pleasures.
No guilt, that is, until Taylor. Waiting in the queue for the bathroom, with lights throbbing on and around me and music pulsating through my body like a sped-up heart beat, I suddenly became enthralled by a bun of golden threads in front of me.
Although her stance was strange – her legs spread too wide, her pelvis arched too forward and her bum too flat – I felt the bulge in my pants grow.
Perhaps I leaned forward and breathed on her alabaster neck, or perhaps I reached up to explore the valley between her shoulder blades that stood out from her shirt. I can’t remember.
All I recall is her turning to me. And I looked from the thick, cream-coloured lips to the buoyant Adam’s apple, and then to his amply filled-out groin as he joked, ‘A line for a line, hey?’, indicating the queue in which we both waited.
‘I’m Taylor,’ he said, winking at me. I strained against the confines of my jeans.
And then, with the suddenness of snapping bone, I realised that the person in front of me was male.
I turned to run. I needed a drink; I needed air. Pushing through throngs of swaying bodies, I clawed my way onto the street.
A twitch, starting from my fingers and spreading up my arms, started to take over my body. My breathing stuttered, the air getting stuck in my throat. Sudden sharp bursts of pain stabbed from my chest. My arms thrashed; inhaling hurt. My eyes shot open to shut just as quickly. My soul thrashed, pushing against the edges of my body as if it couldn’t fit, a square forced into a round hole.
And then, like waves lapping the shore, everything passed; my body yielded to a force pulling it upward as it might have surrendered to sleep. I’m dying, I thought. I realised that death isn’t a struggle but a gentle passing, a breeze. My cells followed nature’s instruction. At that crucial moment, at the cusp of death, of moving from one state to another, or to nothingness, the perceived agony of death was proved to be a fallacy.
Time stretched and swelled like a balloon on the brink of bursting. It wasn’t an ending but the edge of a transition, the edge of re-birth: a breathing, thinking man morphing into, well, nothing.
My eyes opened and I looked up at the black, limitless sky. Gulping down mouthfuls of air, I realised that my thoughts, and the articulation of them, was all that mattered.
The drowsiness in my mother’s voice didn’t deter me. Holding the phone tightly against my face, words began cascading from my mouth. I confessed to everything: that bacon is wonderful and that alcohol is my curative. I told her that, right now, I was wired, that I had ingested white powder that caused an electric current to sizzle from my brain through my body. I confessed that the night that my father died, he was aware of what I then suspected but had only now confirmed – he knew that I was a faggot. I told how he spat the word at me, and how I felt the warm wetness of his wrath on my face. And I confessed to grabbing the steering wheel. I didn’t care about anything except hurting him. I spun the wheel, causing our car to veer across the road.
But yes, he was right.
That night, he was right: I am a faggot.
The late-morning light woke me, and every muscle in my body ached. My throat croaked. I staggered up and stumbled to the sink where I gulped water straight from the tap.
And then slowly, like a sunrise, memories began to seep in.
I turned to stone. I need to get home; I need to see my mother.
And now I sit with a damn Quran in my hands, inanely repeating the same passage over and over again as if hoping for divine intervention, as if the verse is the cause of the knot in my stomach.
Perhaps she did it because she didn’t believe in the hereafter, or because the dead never complain about their children’s failings, or because, with each other for company, the dead don’t get lonely.
I continue reading aloud, knowing all the while what I should do.
The knot tightens, and I close the book, rubbing the palm of my hand over the cover, as if affording the Quran the respect that it demands will change my circumstances.
I then place it back on to the coffee table and pick up the telephone. I look around as if she can see me; as if, through the slit in her parda, she’s peering at me from Heaven.
I look at her motionless body and my face scrunches up. I imagine that I look like I’m on the brink of saying something grave and profound, but all that comes out is Mum.
I turn away from her body and dial 10111. ‘Hello,’ I start. ‘I’ve killed my mother.’