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Endings and Beginnings
Every story has a beginning. Mine starts at the end.
So many voices, all talking at the same time, all rushing at me. I could hear my father's voice among them. I couldn't quite decipher what he was saying. I couldn't make sense of what any of those disembodied voices were saying. All of them tangled together inside my head talking urgently, talking over each other.
Voices in the darkness, hollow and distant.
Who these voices belonged to I had no idea.
There was no mistaking my father's voice though.
It was comforting, but it was freaking me out.
My father was dead! Why was he talking to me? How could he be talking to me? Did this mean I was dead too?
That realisation hit me as hard as the loud symphony of voices inside my aching head.
My father, Frank, had been dead for more than a year. But I could hear him as clear as day. He couldn't be dead after all. I must have dreamt that.
I tried to sift out individual voices to try and make sense of what they were saying to me. I tried to focus on just one voice.
But I couldn't. I was struggling, trapped inside my own head, trying to claw my way out. Those voices, as jarring and as jumbled as they all were – without faces – coaxed me out of the darkness that I didn't even know I had slipped into.
Softly enticing me out of the dead, cold place inside my brain, lifting me out of the blackness that filled my head.
I gasped greedily for air. It felt like I hadn't had any for an eternity. Suddenly I was awake, alert!
Had I stopped breathing? Was I trapped in that space somewhere between life and death? I could feel nothing. I had been stuck in some hollow place that was barren, without colour, without life. It was empty, save for the faceless voices that came at me from every direction. There was nothing inside my head.
Close your eyes, and there will always be images flickering, memories flitting by. But there was nothing inside my head, just the never-ending blackness. It was thick and suffocating.
I don't know if my life tried to escape from the physical place that my body was in. I blinked my eyes open. Nothing I saw made any sense. I was lying face down in the SABC parking lot.
People talk of near-death experiences. I think that evening I had one of my own. I felt claustrophobic in that wide-open space.
I could feel panic wash over me, and I wanted to scream.
I don't know how long I had been out for. A few minutes or a few seconds? It seemed like it had been forever. What happened? How did I end up there?
My eyes fought back the tears that threatened an avalanche. I'm not sure why or how, but I just knew that crying at that moment would seem pathetic. The sobs stayed stuck in my throat, and fear seeped out of every pore and into the cold, hard, unfeeling concrete beneath me, punishing me for my poor choices.
It took some time for my eyes to adjust to the fading daylight.
I could feel the cold and damp penetrating my clothes and reaching into my skin.
I began to shiver, more from fear than from the chill of that winter's evening in Durban. Funny how the memory stores what can seem like the most inane of details in a time of trauma.
Bit by bit I started to make sense of my surroundings, the blackness inside my head begrudgingly making way for consciousness.
Slowly I was making sense of myself. I had a pounding headache. My nose stung, and my face felt like it was on fire. I could taste blood.
And just as everything seemed to unfold in slow motion, it all suddenly began to come together fast. Still lying on the ground, I turned my head and looked straight into a pair of shoes. I smelled his cigarette smoke. I couldn't breathe. So much air around me, yet I felt like I was suffocating.
* * *
I close my eyes now, more than a decade later, and I am back there on that floor.
I can feel all of it, like an out-of-body experience. I need to go back there and to so many other places, so that I can truly move forward to where I am now, so that I can be present in the here and now. But to be present in the here and now, I must take a few steps back.
The time has come to speak my truth. It has been waiting patiently, biding its time inside my head. My truth, dusty with lies and scattered in my memory.
* * *
With a lot of effort, I pushed myself up. My body ached. Every movement required mental coercion, my mind coaxing my limbs.
I stood, a little unsteady on my feet, and looked at him, searching his face for answers. He didn't even have to say a word. A horrified look swept over his face as he drank in the damage. His unreadable, passive face changed within seconds.
Under different circumstances, I might have had a good chuckle at the swift change of expression. Except there was nothing remotely funny about the disaster my own face had become. But for those few seconds, while I stood before him, I remained blissfully unaware of the extent of the damage, of just how horribly my face had morphed into something utterly unsightly while my brain shut down and took me to that place of blackness.
He sucked on that cigarette like his life depended on it. I knew the signs all too well. His body language read like a cheap and predictable story. He was agitated. It was stress, it was fear, and his calculating brain was in overdrive. I could see it. I could smell it, and I could even hear him thinking above the sounds of the chirruping crickets and whooshing cars on the nearby road. Oh, I knew him well! Better than he probably knew himself.
And in that instant came the realisation – it was like being awakened roughly from a deep sleep – of the horror that had happened to me.
I could tell he had a story ready for me. I think he was talking. I saw his mouth moving. I wasn't hearing. I couldn't hear. I couldn't hear above the anger, the rage, the fear and the hate that overflowed from my head and heart.
I walked to his car, my unsteady feet catching in my long denim skirt, my heart thumping furiously in my chest, in my ears. Could he hear it?
I lowered myself into the passenger seat of his BMW, every movement a shockwave of pain. He had followed me. Now I heard his whiney voice – no breaks, no pauses, it was just this monotonous vomit-inducing sound that assaulted my ears – but I was not listening to him.
There was no space outside my head and heart for my anger and fear. I knew it had to be kept hidden at all costs. You just know these things. You know there is never any room on the outside for what is raging on the inside.
I switched on the car's interior light and looked in the tiny mirror. Nothing though could have prepared me for what I saw. My forehead was swollen; it was bulging, angry and misshapen. The skin on my nose and chin had been completely ripped off. It was red, and it was burning like hell, tiny pieces of dirt clinging to the raw bits of my face. The sight took my own breath away. I was unrecognisable. Dear God, I looked hideous. I looked nothing like myself. A scream stayed stuck in my throat.
I couldn't believe my eyes. I never thought myself particularly pretty before, but I was struck by how utterly ugly I suddenly was.
He was kneeling at the car door, still puffing on the dregs of his cigarette. Or had he lit another one? The stench of brandy hung on his warm breath. It travelled the small space between us. It washed over my face, entered my nose and made my stomach churn.
Instead of turning away, as always, I looked at him, searching his eyes, his face for the truth.
I was never beyond allowing him the opportunity for redemption. All it would have taken was seeing actual regret and sorrow in his eyes. His words meant nothing. It was always his eyes I searched to know if there was any truth to his words.
In all the years we were together, in all those times of violence, I never, not once ever, saw remorse or sorrow in his eyes. He said the right words, but the, 'I am sorry, I didn't mean to do it, forgive me' – the deep regret of those forlorn words never actually reached his eyes.
'What have you done?' my voice bitter, bile rising to my mouth. Hatred coursed through my veins like acid, polluting my senses, filling my head.
But I had to play my cards right. I couldn't get confrontational. 'I must not argue,' I told myself. I must not start a fight. My body and my brain defeated but still knowing the rules of engagement and how to play this game to ensure my safety.
I had fallen, he said. We were talking, and I had just suddenly fallen to the ground.
I wanted to laugh. Really? I just fell to the ground?
I knew in my deepest of hearts I didn't just fall to the ground like he said. The injuries I had involved brute force. Did he throw me against the car door? Or did he slam my face into the ground? I don't know. I would never know because the only person who had the answers was never going to reveal what had happened.
I looked into his black eyes, noticing for the first time how close-set they were, making him look utterly repugnant. At that moment, though, they were also empty and couldn't focus, thanks to the booze. Anger fuelled with copious amounts of brandy was a bad combination. Alcohol always turned him bellicose, even more so than he was in his sober state, and that's saying something.
I saw fear creeping in and nesting quietly in the corners of those cold black eyes. Because this time there would be no hiding the evidence, even if I tried. He'd left scars and bruises before, but they were easy to hide. A little make-up or clever story, and no one really bothered to delve deeper or question what they were seeing and being told. But this time there was no way I'd be able to hide behind make-up, and there was no plausible story that even I, a storyteller by profession, could come up with to explain these injuries. I think he realised that his pernicious handiwork was going to expose him for who and what he really was. He was afraid for himself. He went through great lengths to create the image of the consummate professional, the virtuous boyfriend – charming, debonair, every step, every word carefully chosen to portray himself as perfection personified – and now all of that could collapse catastrophically and ruin his career and him. The risk of the real him – the him that I knew – now being exposed for all to see was there.
He took me home that night, even though he didn't want to. He was scared. All the way as he drove, he kept pestering me about what I was going to say to my mother. 'The truth,' I told him and remained silent for the rest of the journey.
I should have been afraid. He was drunk and desperate, but I didn't care. I was past caring. I just wanted to get home. I should have never gotten into the car with him when I really couldn't trust him, but I was past being afraid of him too. What more could he possibly do to me? I was exhausted, acutely aware of how utterly empty I felt. I felt nothing, absolutely nothing. Even my simmering rage had subsided. A place like that can be dangerous, or it can be liberating. It can drive you to do something crazy or it can simply steer you out to make a change.
It is a strange place to be, unafraid and in the midst of danger. I knew the propensity for violence of the person sitting next to me; I was within his reach, yet I was so out of touch with myself that I didn't even care.
He kept insisting he didn't do this to me, that I must believe that he would never do something like this.
He said it was my fault. Now that was a line I had heard a thousand times before.
I had fallen, he kept repeating.
I sat silently in the car, staring out of the window, my head and body aching. Feeling desperately sad. Worn out and done! It wasn't even a conscious thought. It was just there in my head and heart, consoling almost. I wanted out. I needed out. It was over. Even though I didn't quite know it at the time.
This was to be the last time he would ever lay a hand on me. This violent ending would be the start of a whole new life.
It was late when I got home, and I didn't have an explanation. No sooner had I even stepped out of his car and I was already planning to lie for him again. But I have never lied for him. No, survivors of abuse never lie for their abusers. It's what we tell ourselves, that we want to protect the men we supposedly love.
The truth is we lie to protect ourselves. No one must know who we really are. That beneath the smiles and laughs we carefully and calculatingly display, to charm those around us and make them ignore their niggling feeling that something isn't quite right, beneath all of that is just a frightened, defeated, barely existing, pathetic little victim.
Like our abusers, we are also masters of deception. We can fool you into thinking we're loved, in love and content. From the very first time we are struck, we just know how to deceive.
I let myself into the house. It was just my mom, Neela, and I living there. My two sisters, Rita and Preshene, had married and moved out. My father was dead and gone. The silence of a once-full home rang in my ears.
I was desperate to clean myself. But there was no way I could manage lowering myself into the bathtub in the bathroom I used. My body ached too much. So I quietly slipped into my mother's en suite bathroom; she had a shower. Standing up would be far easier for my battered and bruised body. Despite my careful attempts to be quiet, my mother woke up, asking me how I was doing from the darkness of her room.
'Good!' I called out, nothing in my voice to give away the trauma and the anguish that coursed through me. All I wanted to do was cry, cry and never stop crying.
Hot water ran down the length of my body, as I stood rooted to one spot. I gently ran a bar of soap under my arms, down my legs. I had to bite back moaning as I attempted to wash my face. I just had to remove my make-up. Everyone knows you can't go to bed with make-up on – it ages you. Carefully avoiding soap getting onto my raw nose and chin, I gingerly used my fingertips to wash the parts of my face that escaped injury. The hot water seared my raw skin. Water punishing me for betraying myself yet again. But I wasn't going to bed with make-up on.
Self-control was key. My mother asked me to turn on the light when I made my way back into her bedroom.
'What for?' I barked. She said that she just wanted to see me, that she hadn't seen me all day. Was it mother's intuition? There was never getting anything past my mom, as the coming hours would show.
I snapped at her: 'It's late. Please. Don't annoy me. I don't have time for this. I want to sleep.'
I curled up beside my mother, turning my back on her just in case the soft light shining in from outside the bedroom window would reveal my injuries.
I was desperate to be held by safe arms. To feel safe hands touch me. My body ached from so much more than the physical pain. It ached for comfort. But for now, lying curled up next to my mom would have to do. I needed the closeness of a safe person.
I had a 5am call time the following day and was out of the house before my mother could wake up. I had stolen a few more hours to concoct a colossal lie.
It was June 2005. I was a month into my new job as a television news reporter at e.tv. That morning we were covering a taxi strike in Inanda just outside Durban.
I walked through the doors of the e.tv office in Greyville, a few hundred metres from the SABC studios where I was just the night before. My head filled with a thousand thoughts. What was I going to say to my colleagues? How was I going to explain?
Sibusiso Miya, the camera operator assigned to work with me on the story, was already getting the equipment ready. He turned to greet me, but his warm smile immediately turned into a look of absolute shock when he saw my face. I saw pity in his eyes and could tell instantly that he was intuitive and would listen and only pretend to laugh when I was nonchalantly trying to explain away my bumps and bruises.
I wasn't mentally prepared to see the look of pity I saw in his eyes that morning. Sbu later told me that by that time he'd already heard the rumours about me that were circulating in Durban's media circles. Journalists, photographers, they'd all been talking. People had suspected, but they never let on what they thought they knew.
I wanted to put a paper bag over my face. It hurt to have him look at me. I felt so conspicuous, ugly and dirty. I wanted to cry again. I felt utterly spent and desperate. But I was deeply ensnared in my own trap of lies and sorrow. More than the actual knowledge of being an abused woman and victim, the thing that made me feel incredibly sad and lonely was the look of pity in the eyes of people around me, colleagues and strangers alike. Like they could read the story of the fresh bruises that every so often would dent my face.
Do you know what that's like? People almost want to steer clear of you when they notice your injuries, like you have something contagious. As soon as your eyes meet theirs, they quickly look away. They don't want to see you. They wish they hadn't seen you. How can they unsee what they've just seen? That's how I felt every single time someone looked at me, their eyes skimming over my bruises and scars, taking it all in before quickly looking away. Sometimes I got a smile. Not a full, happy one, but a fleeting, sad smile that cut to the core, making me feel even more pathetic than I already knew I was. I'm quite sure I wasn't imagining it. Or maybe it was all in my head, nothing more than a deep, desperate desire for empathy. A visceral need to just be seen.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Beaten But Not Broken"
Copyright © 2018 Vanessa Govender.
Excerpted by permission of Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
One: Endings and Beginnings,
Two: Collision Course,
Three: Breaking the Silence,
Photographic Insert - I,
Four: No is not a Word I Know,
Five: The Price of Silence and the Cost of Defiance,
Six: Tangled Webs,
Seven: When Death Comes Calling and the Tin House of Dreams,
Eight: The Mother and the Wife in Waiting,
Photographic Insert - II,
Nine: Picking Up the Pieces,
Ten: Lights, Camera, Action!,
Twelve: Let's End at the Beginning,