Helen Douglas

Middle Management

There’s a clock on the wall, the near wall, that I can’t quite see, much as I angle my head about and shift in my chair. I’m going crazy trying to get a glimpse of the time, get my bearings. And then Smith stands up, easing his gammy leg no doubt, bloody war wound no doubt. Right in front of the clock. Across the way, Joe is rearing back, eyes rolling, foaming at the mouth. Maybe he’s been run too hard and put away wet. Or maybe he’s got something to say, something to get off that massive heaving chest of his.

Of course, it’s the conference room. Haven’t we been in here, stuck like pigs, since the day the world began? Same composite table, veneer peeling, same fake green leather seats on the metal frames that sway and shriek along with our minds in this interminable day at the office. What are we doing here? As if anyone knows. That’s the question no one’s going to ask, because if anyone’s redundant here, it’s the joker who’s going to ask out loud: What are we doing here? Number one mystery of the day, but it won’t be me. God knows, I wish I knew. Maybe it’s hell, or maybe it’s one of those hidden camera gag shows. Maybe hell is a hidden camera gag show.

The thing is, there are all these women. No, there are two women. They smile sweetly, bring us coffee, heels tapping brightly across the linoleum. Christ, my tie feels tight. They’re smiling, but they try not to let us see. There’s another woman behind the camera hidden behind the clock. She’s the one I’m trying to keep an eye on – on her face, and her hands as they sweep across. As if she holds the key to it all. As if, any minute now, she’ll come out with a reel of film under her arm and step down onto the table. We’ll put the lights down and she’ll set up the projector and we’ll see what it’s all been about, have a good laugh. And then we can all go home.

Helen Douglas

Misericordia

Once upon a time I saw an angel, but I can’t quite remember. And this not quite remembering fills me with such grief as I can hardly bear. She was huge, filled with glory, and terrible, wings white as heaven and soft as graphite. Flecked with gold. She was radiant. Radiant.

What am I to do now? She has taken something from me. She covers me still, binds my heart and holds me fast. She wants to keep me safe here, to lay me down, to sleep. And if ever she should let me go, then everything, all the trappings of the world, would be lost, would leave me naked and barren as some sad sack out of Beckett or Sartre.

This angel is mad. She is too afraid. Once upon a time, she heard a child’s prayer and took pity. She came to me, my soul to keep. She came to me that I not die, that the Lord not take. I wonder what she looks like now. I see her as Lear on the heath, grey, shrunken, tattered and raving.

Helen Douglas

Covenant

Bitter as ash in the mouth, this midnight rain
deceitful, unforetold, slashes the darkness
has its way with the world in the dark
while the neighbourhood curtains twitch
and whisper amongst themselves
tut-tutting and fru-fruing as if

all the rules had been suspended
and the morning unavoidably delayed, caught up
at the station without the right change
watching the time dwindle down, helpless
desperate, knowing that here
on my street

the bitter midnight rain falls and falls
filling the gutters, filling the alleys
rising in a dark floodtide
to bear us all away, lost
beyond any finding

Helen Douglas

Voetsek!

Her voice smelled like a dog that’s just rolled in something disgusting on the beach and then comes racing up, completely delighted with herself, jumping all over you and jamming her nose in your crotch, when all you want to do is find a stick and throw it so far out to sea that you’ll be long gone by the time she’s fetched it and brought it back.

Helen Douglas

A soldier, a jungle, a fountain, a descent

She finds herself in a jungle, thick and green, light scattered between leaves and fronds, just at dusk. Unseen birds call from the canopy. Small creatures, and smaller, find their way to earth. She crouches, motionless, tastes the air, one hand on the ground, the other at the knife at her waist, her fear rising as rapidly as the light fades.

She follows the sound of water, moving quickly and carefully. A vine breaks as she passes, a surfacing in her mind, a tremor, a stream. She moves into darkness; a small creature flutters and falls, filled with fright. She moves off. The full moon’s light grows as the night deepens. She follows a small track that borders the stream. A creature screams somewhere. She stays her course. Her eyes are closed.

A sudden chill lifts the hair on her arms. From the dark, a hand that closes over her arm, a hand that covers her mouth. She drops, she falls. Stricken, she falls. A form casts its shadow across her. She slips into the stream, the black stream. She takes stones into her mouth. She falls, she dreams, she drowns, and the water takes her, bears her away, under the sky, under the night, under the sounds of the creatures of the jungle. Behind her vanishing, a creature cries out, injured, and lost.

After an age, a lifetime, the sun rises again. The light reveals a fountain, a circle of moss-covered stones inside a clearing pounded to dirt by generations. And in the clearing the body of a woman, wet, exhausted, lies as if shipwrecked and washed up by the sea. She stirs, she wakes, she rises. Wondering, she dips her hand in the fountain’s basin. She turns and moves away. Unbidden and unseen, a small creature follows, as silent as shade.

Helen Douglas

This blackness is most inviting
on deep water where the flotsam floats
clear water rippling against pebbles
fluid and anxious, river rushing to the ocean.
Gillian Munn

Riverine

1
Celestial carriageway stars wheeling constellations
gossip squabble crossed by satellites star crossed
white flight of bird messengers the moon beams
bright against craters potholes shadows brim and dip.
In an avenue of trees below this cacophonous sky
        the blackness is most inviting.
   
2
They waited all night through the storm
with no hope but the losing of it.
The world stops in these moments
groan of a dog by the woodstove.
Gulls squall out there in the channel, rising
        on deep water where the flotsam floats.

3
The Seymour scrambles down low in August, edging
down to the city cedar-clad and cold, down through
hard rocks of soft colour – grey and white and blue
impossible sky clear endless high blue sky and
That beer’ll keep good and cold down there down where
        clear water ripples against pebbles.

4
Winter river held down in iron in ice restrained in
straightjacket of snow white down below even then
tumbles on ahead of itself even then thunders infernal
channels cascades endless through night sky.
If only to be unformed again if only to arrive
            fluid and anxious river rushing to the ocean.

Helen Douglas

What comes through rends
endless small work
decay sets in
deep in the earth, the water goddess

endless small work
constant caring tending
the water goddess, deep in the earth
committed even to the storm

constant caring tending
I was not a deserter
committed, even to the storm
a gush of sparks

(I was not a deserter)
walking the uplands round Sirkelvlei
a gush of sparks
what comes through, rends

Helen Douglas

Four scenes from the school of dreams

Approaching the house at dawn, feet wet and cold from the dew. She’s been walking all night. For the last mile, the sky has been lightening, crescent moon and the last stars caught on velvet. She steps out of the wood and beholds the house – a cottage, set in a clearing, surrounded by natural grasses, dew catching the light, flying creatures, spiders’ webs. Behind her in the woods, birds are waking and calling. The cottage is weathered, wooden-sided, with three steps up to the screened-in porch and the front door. She slips around the side of the house to the more dishevelled backyard, leaving silver footprints behind her. She steps onto the single concrete step, opens the screen door, lets herself in.

She pauses in the doorway, gut-tightened, and shivers up her inner arms. She leaves the door ajar, steps into the kitchen of her childhood home. How familiar, this peacefulness of a tidied kitchen in the morning of a sleeping house. She walks through the kitchen, fingers touching and trailing smooth planes of countertop, cupboard, refrigerator, dishwasher. She crosses the museum-like stillness, and stops in the doorway to the dining room. Everything known, yet strange: tablecloth-covered table, chairs, sideboard. She slides open the top left drawer, pulls out a blue felt-wrapped bundle, feels the heft of silver cutlery. “Is it dark enough to see? Can you see, now?” She glances up at the picture of her grandmother and scowls. She takes up the photo and flicks it away. She will be alone. The old woman smacks her lips and folds her hands. “As you like then.” The girl turns back to the soft blue parcel, unties the string, unrolls it onto the table. Six heavy-handled table knives, blue with tarnish. She crosses to the closed hallway door and opens it.

A Christmas scene: in front of a tree hung with tinsel and candy-canes, under the glare of super-eight movie camera lights, brother in his striped pyjamas and dressing gown, blond hair spiking out, sister in curlers, father with camera turning and recording as stockings and presents are distributed and opened, carols playing on the stereo in the background. She gets the usual, dolls, clothes, a book from the grandparents. But the last box she opens holds beaded red satin slippers: such beauty, what style! She loves them at first sight – who could have known she would? Who could have chosen such a perfectly bewildering perfect present? She starts to show them off: Look, aren’t they beautiful? (Oh, but close the door now, quickly, before she finds out that they’re not really for her, before the embarrassment of having to apologise and pass them on to mother.)

And so I turn and look out the window of the front door and see myself, dying. Ill, but not sick, comfortable enough. Old, glad to go, impatient to be gone. A hospital scene. Sure, she’s scared as well, and sad, but: at last to get to the end, to a peace that finally surpasseth all understanding (as opposed to the understanding that has always surpassethed all peace). Is it just a waste?, she’ll wonder, but it won’t worry her. She’s backed her own bets. It’s out of her hands. The sun sets. Is it light enough, now? Last words, even if never spoken, last words are true. They take on colour like gems, or stained glass at twilight, catching the final rays of the sun. No secrets left. Last word? “Good-bye, be seeing you,” and off she goes. Bright beaded slippers on either hand, she flies away, laughing and shouting, devil-may-care.

Helen Douglas

Going to the fair in springtime

I am going to the fair in springtime
I mean to bring myself to light

Going to make like a baby
and head on out of here
I’m gonna wake up,
knowing where I’m going
following the signs to the

wisdom

questioning everything
assert my authority
learn to sway more
be more

wide open

I am going
to arrive
I am going
to show them all
I’m gonna make myself a name
I am going to arrive

Believing in myself, in my right
believing in the voice, in the force of life
and the force of death. Won’t be afraid
believing,
and holding dear
taking all that I’ve been given
I am going to give myself away.

~

Helen Douglas

The Closest Stranger

The door was open and we shuffled in, dribs and drabs. The place was nothing special, just one of many little theatres running tired old sex shows at the peeling edge of the District. At midnight, with nothing else going on, it was a place for drunks and whores to get in from the cold. We pulled off our gloves, unwound the scarves from around our throats and placed them on empty seats beside us. I sat down, unbuttoned my coat.

Once we were settled, the lights switched off in the house and went up behind a broad white screen on the stage. You could see the puppetmaster’s backlit shape perched up high, his bald head poking up above the top edge of the screen, beaded with sweat. People sighed and sank deeper in their seats. As the puppetmaster raised his hands, four figures tumbled down their strings to the bottom of the screen and commenced an awkward, jerky dance. Just by their shapes, you could tell they were grotesque, like creatures in an Indonesian shadow play or woodcut illustrations to some dark fable. People near me started shifting around, grunting softly. A title flashed up on the screen: “Location of connection”. Well, a person had to laugh – but it made me uneasy all the same.

The light faded to black and then came up for the second scene. It had the title “Uncollected”. The puppetmaster twitched a finger and the puppet at the far end reached up and began to climb, hand over hand, up behind the screen until its flat black head popped up beside the puppetmaster’s shiny pink one. It took over a set of strings from the puppetmaster, and one of the puppets below began a different sort of dance. I was caught up with the horror and fascination of it, couldn’t tear my eyes away. As the light began to dim again, I discovered I had been holding my breath. In the darkness behind me, someone snored, and someone moaned.

The third scene, “Not here, here”, wasn’t as brightly lit. The air in the room suddenly felt close and stale. There was no sign of the puppetmaster or his surrogate, and only one puppet appeared behind the screen. With no apparent means of support, it sometimes leapt, sometimes became still. But it didn’t fall. It was a terrible thing to watch. A man near the front whistled and clapped, the kind of man I despise, the kind of man who always keeps a length of rope in his pocket.

There was no break before the next scene, just the light coming up harsh and bright again. From the base of the screen, the shape of the puppetmaster rose up, rising like a flame or like smoke. Beside him, his protégé took flight as well, and then the others, rising up like figures in an inferno, or a rapture, their strings trailing loosely. Heads and shoulders appeared at the bottom of the screen, followed by torsos, legs and feet, as they swarmed up to the top and disappeared, only to emerge again from the bottom, rising and rising eternally, and I noticed it was a loop of film being projected. Gradually, the light was stopped down to black and a voice in the dark announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, this has been the final performance of The Closest Stranger”.

The house lights came on. The people gathered themselves up and shuffled back out to the dark street. I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I just sat there. Eventually someone came and locked up. Later, when it got very cold, I started a little fire.

Helen Douglas

Later, she’ll ride her bike forever

A bedroom under the eaves, carpeted to save small feet from cold winter floors. But at long last spring today, this morning. Already well risen up behind the carousel horses that circle the pale curtain, a mellow sun dapples the walls with leopard spots. Aromas of toast and coffee, of fried eggs and bacon, percolate up through the house.

The desk waits patiently, keeping all its projects to itself. Heavy shirts and sweaters bide their time in drawers built into the wall, sea shanties muffled in their folds. The door to the hallway is closed; the door to the closet is closed; the curtain is closed. In the bed by the wall, way way down at the bottom of the bed, a lump curls round itself like a wolf in a cave, its muzzle poked under a paw.

She’s waking up, waking up, it can’t be helped. She wakes up, but she doesn’t move.
Like any decent super-secret undercover spy, she’d never move without making reconnaissance first. At her command, invisible silvery slithery antennae sneak up from the covers, insinuating and slipping discreetly, silently, into the air, to send back: the kitchen smells, the drowsy spring freshness, the light of day. And a presence.

She senses for it tentatively and with bravado all at once, calls silently, “You’re there, right?”

Contact. Pause.

“What do you think?” comes back in reply, dryly amused.

She waits, waits for more. Is there more? More firmly: “You’re there, aren’t you?”

“Try me.”

She tries for defiance. “I’m not coming out.” And hears the trace of a smile, teasing, held back.

“No?”

She considers. She concedes. “Okay. Okay, but wait?”

There is a shift of a lump at the bottom of the bed. She stretches up and up and up, eases back the covers, rolls into the clothes of the day, and steps into the infinite prospect of a Saturday morning, in the spring.

Helen Douglas

Look, there.

Where does the beloved reside?

In everything that is not straight,
the sun reflected in a copper shield:
What comes between us allows us to survive.

Sooner or later,
the blind man will take his machete,
hack through branch and wall
(trunk and belly),
breach the distance,
in the dark, ravenous.

A broad moon rises,
henna and silver.

Not reflection or parable
I misconstrue you.
You, in plain sight,
before my eyes.

The eye that beholds the moon
does not grasp it.

The eye is a lover.
This light is a lover.
The moon is illuminated.
Beloved is the moon.

(100 words)

Helen Douglas

The Bride’s Pantoum (The Root)

The ground she stands upon
The trembling fluid earth she touches
The giddy dizziness of it
A tinker’s journey

The trembling fluid earth she touches
The face of the earth appeals to her
A tinker’s journey
A forced march

The face of the earth appeals to her
A laughing man
A forced march
The earth that shifts

A laughing man
The giddy dizziness of it
The earth that shifts
The ground she stands upon