It is a cloudy and warm morning and I am wondering how to cut back the wild and thorny bougainvillea outside my bedroom window. The brackets are a rich burgundy tipped with copper and the branches tap urgent messages in Morse code on my windows all through windy nights. I am not sleeping well, and so the bougainvillea must be pruned and trained away from the window sill.
Una has to go back to the doctor for scans of her abdominal cavity and swollen leg. I feel very anxious and am trying not to show it.
My much-loved friend J called me from the UK and I talked a little about my father, still in a coma in the rehab ward of a care facility in Hawaii. I have no contact, and no contact is possible. But everything remains unfinished — I do wonder if he cannot let go and die because his life is such a tangle of secret abuse and violent compulsions and if somehow he needs closure even though he is lying unconscious. We know so little about semi-vegetative states. I send him release, the freedom to go, my forgiveness — but the real war, as with each of us, is with ourselves.
And there is work waiting on my desk as I fill the water bowls for the pups, browse international news, look up recipes for slow-roast lamb. It is my friend Charlotte’s birthday and she will come to us for supper tomorrow so I am making her favourite dishes. I must soak raisins and char-grill zucchini and eggplant, pound chillies and garlic and ginger, crush peppercorns. The table grapes are wonderful at this time of year.
As I move around the kitchen, I check locked doors and the gates to the backyard. There is a gang of armed men, mostly youngsters who have failed school, robbing houses and assaulting lone women in this area. Guns are cheaper than a new set of clothes in this part of the world.
Years ago I did a criminology project on firearm homicides. After that I decided never to own a gun. Unless somebody has been extensively trained in the responsible use of firearms and has seen what bullets do to the human body, I don’t think he or she should go out and buy a gun. One of my earliest memories is of being taught to fire an FN rifle on a rifle range in Kenya, where it was legal to kill other human beings in defence of property. I remember the noise of the rifles firing, that explosive percussion in my ear, the jolting against my shoulder, and how when I ran to pick up the cartridge it sizzled molten in my fingers. The buzz of dangerous new emotions came up in me like a swarm of bees.
I am not being contentious here. The Catholic church has a long and well-developed understanding on ‘just war’ and restraints governing self-defence, but Christian beliefs have not tended to stop frightened or outraged people from arming themselves — and then finding it hard to live with the knowledge of oneself as somebody who has ended another’s life, or participated in makeshift vigilante squads or militias that destroy more than they protect. Living in South Africa has taught me how to live with unsafety and violence, and the violence within myself. Others are shocked and dismayed to find themselves shouting at shop assistants or slapping their own children or swearing at a stranger in a crowded place. Some of us would not be surprised to wake one morning and find ourselves mass murderers for all our church-going and do-gooding and memorising passages of the BB or the Bible. But others still think they are able to go out and buy a bright new shiny revolver and keep it in a locked cabinet beside the bed and that it will not change them, that they will not be tempted to kill. They are innocent of the human heart, the war within.