Chariklia Martalas

Hauntings from Adolescence

A haunting is what remains, those memories that dig into the lining of the skin.

How to remember those days spent locked in a classroom? Those days when suffocation was not just in a uniform too tight but also in worn out brown shoes – both comfortable and claustrophobic in summer heat. What to do with what remains? Do you bury it? Do you leave it scratching your skin as if it was a bite? Memory is always a point of questioning.

It is best to think of a haunting as a collection of stones

The white washed bricks of the school reflected the wisteria hanging from promenades, agapanthuses nestled in flowerbeds and trees that dropped jacaranda petals in the ache of October. I would pause on those sultry Johannesburg summer afternoons when the clouds would break open, waiting for the torrential downpour. Waiting, in delight and seeing the white paint on the bricks that cracked to look like old fossils. Tracing my fingers on it as if it were a spell that could take me home.

It is best to think of a haunting as a collection of stones

The grey-as-a-crypt stone table carried our cries of non-redemption while we ate our lunch. It was the tiredness that one can only feel at seventeen, a tiredness of waiting for the stone table to break, for the whip to lash, for the beginning of life to burst forth from the cement. And I wonder what we were expecting; a jolt from our apathy? But we were tired and our lunch still had to be hurriedly eaten before we could move on to the next obligation. We were lucky girls so ennui is the right word. We were stuck in the midst of our own condemnations of a place that we were both ready to leave and not ready to leave at all. Waiting seemed to be a game of adolescence.

It is best to think of a haunting as a collection of stones

The pavement stones were perfectly aligned, like the schedule of the bells that rang for our reluctant feet to hesitate towards class. Here we were moving in uniforms that never fit properly and shoes worn down by years of shuffling. We were looking the same but we were also as different as the cut stone of the paving. To survive, we had to conform to an image as static as a perfect stone. A system that wanted to smooth us down as if we were hot tar being poured for a road. A rebellion was in the small moments of sabotaging perfect presentation – to crack the finish with a blazer unworn, hair tied loose, homework done with bad handwriting.

It is best to think of a haunting as a collection of stones

The cool tiles of the bathroom were always a strange shade of off white, illuminating a sickly glow under the fluorescent lights. I would lie down on them after stealing myself from class so I could be alone, feeling the weight of my head pressed against their iciness, my fingers resting against my sides as if I was enclosed in my tomb. It was a misery that made my head pound. I would cry on that bathroom floor until somebody found me, resurrecting me from the tiles that I felt were cleaner than me. It was normal for girls to cry. It was normal for the bathroom floor to be wet.

It is best to think of a haunting as a collection of stones

Some of us were loved. Loved by the teachers who carved away our edges until we gleamed. We were more than stone, more than uniform, more than shuffled shoes. Some of us needed to leave in order to shine.

It is best to think of a haunting as a collection of stones

And we sat on the cement steps waiting for freedom. That last exam written in a room not fit for the South African summer heat. Pens scratching as the fans swiveled on the ceiling and I pretended that I actually cared what my answers were. Eighteen and already feeling too old, I was aching to leave the cement steps, leave the bathroom tiles, leave the stone table. I was aching to enter a world both anticipated and frightening.

A haunting is what still remains

One year on and I came back to the white bricks and the grey stone table. What to do with what one remembers? I felt triumphant; that I was better than I once was. But I was also angry and it crept under my skin. I had no power over the memories.

A haunting is what still remains

Walking back down the pathway, the paving under different shoes, I still felt the suffocation settling into my throat. Still felt how lost one can be in those white painted bricks. I suddenly wished for the coolness of those bathroom tiles again. I felt that familiar ache of wanting to leave.

A haunting is what still remains
 
Four years on and the question changes – how to forget the discomfort of a uniform not designed for my body? How to forget the desperation that lead me to those cool tiles? Four years on and the memories had not managed to change, the stones still looked the same. I knew that there was power in forgetting, but forgetting was impossible.

A haunting is what still remains

Maybe I was looking for the wrong feeling. Invincibility. To go beyond the pain of always being in danger of failure. But was there a way to find beauty in my collection of stones? Was there more to the memories than I thought possible?

I’ll find in the haunting a beautiful collection of stones

I looked closer and there was beauty in the cracked faces of the white bricks. They gleamed in the sunlight. I looked closer at the beauty of the wisteria that hung from the promenades, the agapanthuses nestled in the flowerbeds and the trees glowed green just after it rained.

I’ll find in the haunting a beautiful collection of stones

There was a beauty to our seventeen-year-old selves dreaming about what could happen next, about the very anticipation of a life that would start anew. There was even a beauty in our uniformity that we belonged to each in our simple, ill-fitting dresses, socks and shoes.

I’ll find in the haunting a beautiful collection of stones

There was also beauty in rebellion, in wanting to belong to yourself instead of to a school. And beauty in the bathroom tiles that held my tears.

I’ll find in the haunting a beautiful collection of stones

There was beauty in wanting more. To be turned loose. To allow the collection of stones to remain. To be haunted by my adolescence.

© Chariklia Martalas

Chariklia Martalas studies at the University of the Witswatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Her work has been featured in Riggwelter Press, Isacoustic, The Raw Art Review, The Foundationalist and is forthcoming in Drunk Monkeys.

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