I don’t like it when people close the doors in their houses. Inside … between rooms, I mean. It feels like secrets, like sadness, like the energy and love of the house is confined. I had a friend when I was at high school and the doors in their apartment were always shut. From the hall to the kitchen. From the lounge to the dining room, between bathrooms and bedrooms. When we went home to her place after school – the afternoon would be punctuated with the sound of opening and shutting.
Her mother dressed beautifully. She was the first person I met who was truly stylish. No mean feat in South Africa in the mid-seventies. But H’s mother knew how to put her inexpensive buys together to create ‘a look’. Her hair was streaked ‘professionally’ each month by a hairdresser – no home kits for her, an almost unfathomable indulgence. I would listen fascinated as she told of her modelling career. Of the clothes she had worn. Of the places she had been – Paris, Rome, London. I couldn’t even imagine that life. Y was different to anyone I had ever met. She was hip and cool. And fun to be around. Except when she wasn’t. Then she was curt and hard and mean and her voice would crack and she would flick insults at H. Then she would laugh and drag hard on her Peter Stuyversant, the blue smoke puffing out from both nostrils.
Y beat her daughters. I only found that out years later when I went to visit H in Tara, a psychiatric facility set in beautiful grounds, on a hill in a suburb of Johannesburg. I hadn’t seen H since high school. Something had shifted in our friendship when we stopped being in the same class. I had headed off to Latin, H to French where she had become friends with J. And I no longer fit. There was a gradual undermining of me, giggles in French that I couldn’t understand, whispers about J’s boyfriend R that I wasn’t allowed to hear. One Friday J hosted a sleepover and we were listening to records and watching her paint her long fingernails… underneath. I asked “but why ..” and in a flash H turned on me in a fury, hissing; “Because she wants to. That’s why. Always asking questions. Don’t you know anything? In your ugly clothes.”
J turned and smiled beatifically at me: “Shame” she said.
I sat there for a moment, mortified.
Then I got up and walked home. And never spoke to H again.
I sat in the hospital corridor listening to the automatic doors un-lock and re-lock. A double clunk and a click followed by two sets of soft footsteps. I couldn’t see through the windows … it was that frosted glass they used in government buildings in the seventies. The type that had thin mesh embedded in it. The type you couldn’t break easily.
Then there she was. It was H, I could see that in the face – in her weirdly pale blue eyes. But it also wasn’t her. It was a skeletal, thin-skinned, X-ray negative version of the girl who had been my best friend. I tried to hug her, it was awkward and she shrank back. Her wrists were bandaged. The nurse sent us away: “Go out into the sunshine.” Even though it was winter.
We sat on a cold wooden bench. H told me what had happened in her life since we “weren’t friends anymore”. How her mother’s manic episodes had escalated into violence. How she had started drinking and become slovenly. How their father had left without a word. How the sisters had taken two days to open the door into their mother’s room, because they knew what they would find. How H had taken the decision to stop eating. How she had ended up: “Back in a place with closed doors. Kind of funny.”
Then it was over. She didn’t ask about my life. She went inside. And I went home. She hadn’t said why she had asked the hospital to call me. But I thought I knew.
I saw her again today in the hairdresser. She didn’t recognise me, but I knew it was her. Same eyes, still so thin. She moved awkwardly – as if broken bones had set wrong. I watched as she walked to the spa treatment room, recognising her gestures and the intonation of her voice. Debating whether to say hello. Then she went inside, the beautician closed the door: H was gone.
And I went back to my magazine.
(Image in oils found uncredited on Facebook. If it is yours – please let us know and we will credit you. Image of yellow flower by Banksy.)