Excerpt for The Woman Who Came Home - Walking back into my life by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

Joseph Campbell

The Woman Who Came Home

Penny de Villiers

Published by EpubSA


I had barely been married for three months and here I sat in front of a damn psychiatrist. I was desperate and he was supposed to be Cape Town’s finest. I sheepishly asked him the question he had undoubtedly heard countless times, “Can you help me get out of my marriage?”

What made this scenario more humiliating was that I had divorced my first husband, Andrew, less than year ago, proceeded to commit the common “rebound blunder”, and here I sat, weak and exhausted from the havoc of rushing into a second marriage with Andre. At least the perpetual worry of calling Andre Andrew was behind me. I should have seen the warning just in the similarity of the names. Even worse was that their second names both started with a P! Andrew Paul, Andre Peter. Really! Too much.

A heartbreaking divorce, terminating the seven-year marriage, followed by the move, finding a house to rent for my 18-month-old son and me, facing life on my own, dating, now … a second marriage. A failed second marriage.

I was tired, numb, and disillusioned. All I needed was this expert to give me the strength to face the inescapable reality of my mistake.

The gangly, bird-like psychiatrist listened to my tearful story, perched on his leather chair and surrounded by the security of his vast book collection. His serene home office, nestled on stilts over a calming lake, provided the perfect sheltered environment for me to open up my Pandora’s box.

He only interrupted me once to ask: “What would you say if I told you I had just received the news that your husband had been knocked over by a car and died on impact?”

I imagined the scenario and listlessly verbalised my appalling thoughts. Ashamed, I admitted that the news provided me with an immediate feeling of relief. For once, I wouldn’t be to blame. I would be free from the shackles of my stupidity without shame. Instead of the scorn from friends and family for yet another failure, I would be lavished with pity, sympathy, and in the place of isolation I would find support and love.

But husband number two was very much alive and I was three months pregnant with my honeymoon baby. The psychiatrist’s game had been insightful, but I knew I stood alone in deciding what action I would take. He closed the perfectly timed session by saying that, based on his experience, I would inevitably end this relationship in divorce, so I might as well face the music sooner than later and get closure.

I left the serenity of his rooms and returned to the battleground of my life. It seemed that no matter how much I read books on love and marriage, or practised the art of communication … I was a disaster.

A few months later, I gave birth to my precious daughter Amber and stayed in a state of matrimony for eight years. I had felt too guilty and insecure to take the psychiatrist’s advice. Apart from having an affair, I tried every conceivable strategy to make the marriage work. I felt equipped to be the authoress of the book, 100 Ways to Make Your Marriage Work and then GIVE UP.

Deja vu.

Nearly a decade after my visit to the psychiatrist, I sat in front of a Czechoslovakian lawyer, Yogesh Parma, for rrrround number two. He was in his late sixties and looked more like an eccentric artist than a lawyer. Too tired to fight, I decided to keep the divorce simple – turn away and keep walking. Before I knew it, documents were signed and Yogesh was driving me to the divorce court, standing faithfully by me as I requested the judge’s permission to break yet another contract having delivered yet another failed promise. He judiciously agreed.

Yogesh and I drove home with little to say. I felt like celebrating my newly acquired freedom but silently I sat there admitting to yet another personal failure. I had been lost in thought, mesmerised by the smooth sounds from the engine of the old Mercedes-Benz, when I heard him speak. Yogesh’s words struck a chord deep inside me.

“I really like your husband,” he said.

“Well, he’s all yours after today,” I said with my best sarcasm.

He ignored my quip. “It’s a pity you couldn’t make it work. Andre’s a good man. I believe we attract people into our lives, to treat us the way we want to be treated,” he said solemnly. “This is your second marriage; I suggest you take a closer look at why you attract the kind of men you do. Because, if you don’t, in a few years from now, you’ll probably end up coming to see me again for some more of the same.”

My usual response would have been defensive, but his wise words rang true and I sat quietly allowing them to penetrate my thoughts. Why did I keep attracting these men? I somberly promised myself that I would examine my choices in earnest. I had spent my life reading psychology books and had studied communication as my major for three years. Then my critical nature also jumped at the opportunity to discover why I made any mistake.

Bottom line: my husbands and I had not been compatible from the start.

Later that year, I awoke and couldn’t lift myself out of bed. My imagination started to wreak havoc. Fears of all kinds of possibilities arose. Eventually I was diagnosed with severe exhaustion. I had prided myself in what I got done in a day, a week. “Give it to a busy woman and she will get it done,” was my mantra. The months that followed found me still exhausted and bed-ridden. I would crawl down the passage to the toilet, as walking was just too strenuous, only to arrive at the bathroom and wonder how I was going to make the climb up to the top of the toilet bowl.

I went from provider, pillar of strength, powerhouse, to pathetic, reliant, weak.

Here I was, back at the same T-junction of life. Different road, same story. I had behind me two marriages, two divorces, two children, three surnames – and enough heartache to fill a bottomless well.

I was soon to uncover that my dynamic drive had been driven by the F-word.

I’m an Aquarian born in the summer of ’69. My childhood stories are the kind you read about in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

My birth town is called Lusikisiki, an onomatopoeic African name derived from the rustling sound of reeds blowing in the wind … siki-siki. Besides that delightful poetic detail, it’s the most insignificant village in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, but boasting the only hospital close to our seaside home in the village of Port St Johns. Port St Johns is positioned on a wild treacherous coastline which stretches unspoiled with magnificent beaches and sandstone mountains. Predominantly populated by Xhosa-speaking people, its main source of income is visitors coming to fish and hike. My family owned a basic guest house on the beach and also a trading store, selling simple supplies to the villagers. My mom, Jenny, and dad, Viv, met in this village and married. She fell pregnant with my sister Julie at the age of 19 and I followed three years later.

Our cheery days were spent in bathing suits, barefoot, exploring, swimming, catching crabs, and riding horses. School was attended by taking a small row-boat trip across the river, which, when flooded, brought treacherous waters, delightfully forcing us to stay home and adventure some more.

A favourite weekly ritual involved a gigantic bonfire. Our tribe – my sister and me, our four cousins plus friends – would construct a whopping mound of driftwood collected in the morning. As the sun faded on the horizon, we would light the wood, producing the bonfire. Later, a smaller mound of coals would be scooped aside and we would begin with supper preparations, my father barbequing our catch of the day. A whopper fish took dominance on the grid, surrounded by too many crayfish tails to count. Nothing beats seafood done on the open fire, nor the freedom of being on a wide-open beach with no rules and no restrictions.

My life was like the reed, represented by my birth town Lusikisiki: I was simply blowing in the wind…

One day my father Viv and his three brothers announced to our family: “We are all moving to a great city which will be filled with new adventures.” In hindsight, I think it was more like a bigger village a few hours south of Port St Johns. I was six years old when we moved onto a farm outside King William’s Town. We never farmed anything. The word farm represented an open space filled with trees, wildlife, and over 15 varieties of snakes including the deadly cobra, puff adder, and boomslang. More than the snakes themselves, I was terrified of the fat injection needle with the lengthy syringe kept in the cupboard should we be bitten by a venomous snake and there was not enough time to get us to the nearest hospital 40 minutes away. We had it drilled into us to “recognise the type of snake so you can get the right injection”. I fortunately never had that injection and, although we would see snakes and even find them in the house, none of us was ever bitten. I did get a hiding for scaring my granny by purposefully rolling up a snake-like belt and hiding it beneath her pillow. The poor old girl came close to having a heart attack.

We were three families living in three houses on the farm. My mother Jenny and her sister Molly had both married two brothers, Viv and Stan, in the village of Port St Johns. My mother’s brother George and his son Georgie and then of course granny also lived with us. So we had our own commune of a dozen: six children and six adults.

We had Tarzan outfits made by my aunt from camouflage material and spent our carefree days in tree-houses, making mud animals at the dam, swimming in the pool, hunting with pellet guns, cycling on treacherous farm hills or, my personal favourite, driving the John Deere tractor.

My parents both had “green fingers” and began transforming the barren farm into acres of manicured rolling lawns with gigantic beds displaying the indigenous aloe rockery, my dad’s rare cycad collection, and my mom’s assortment of over 20 species of roses. I loved the show made by the miniature yellow roses which were encouraged to creep and cover the entire barn roof creating a mass display of sunshine. It was our sanctuary from town life.

My sister and I were mainly looked after by granny, while my mom worked as an office administrator and bookkeeper with my dad and his three brothers in their new road construction business. Mom was preoccupied and often stressed.

It was during this era that I felt my carefree spirit being snuffed out like a candle.

The truth is that a frosty breeze of change had blown into my mother’s life. She had moved from a small seaside village, to running the administration and accounting for a busy construction business. She had two small children demanding attention, and a farm home to run. 

This wind shifted her to a harder, task orientated and unforgiving parenting style. She began demonstrating the kind of coping mechanisms you expect from someone who has too much to do and not enough resources to do them. A busy life requires prioritizing and juggling work pressure and family life took its toll. My mom’s behaviour became regimental and highly disciplinarian. Corporal punishment was a socially acceptable parental instrument during this era. Parents had the right, if not the duty, to physically punish “misbehaving” children in order to teach appropriate conduct. She enforced her rights.

I remember when I would dig my feet into the carpet, fighting to prevent myself being dragged down the passage by my mother for my dose of punishment behind the locked bathroom door. There was always some misdemeanor I had evidently committed that day, whether it was an ill word to my gran or a disagreement with my sister or playing with a ball in the house. I grew up understanding one thing with crystal clarity: that neither my sister nor I were good children. We were bad, and we needed to be drastically improved so we could end up being lovable.

War doesn’t always distinctly announce itself. Especially childhood battles, which insidiously emerge, and only over time you realise you have been fighting. Fighting to survive. My mother is a survivor of her own war growing up in the home of an unloving, abusive, alcoholic father. My father also had his hurdles coming from a family of four brothers where he was the only one who didn’t finish school. Without a formal education, he secretly felt inadequate and bestowed upon those he loved the same deep criticism he felt for himself.

Although the fertile and healthy farm soil surrounded me, inside my home the environment was often tense and fearful. My family life lacked love and compassion, and resulted in my being deficient in the key nutrients needed for healthy whole living. When a child doesn’t feel secure in their own home, school, or neighbourhood, the world becomes a hostile place.

What do you do when you’re in danger? Even a child knows that you protect yourself.

I became the master of camoufleur. Camouflage is also an established military strategy, and I became as skilled as the Viet Cong, renowned for their stealthy disappearances during the Vietnam War. I developed well-organised methods to conceal my lack of self-belief and growing fears. No one at school, none of my friends knew anything about my how I really felt.

The tough circumstances gave me a tasteless hope. If I could only improve, I would be better, acceptable, and likeable. And so I perfected what I saw as the necessary art of pretending to be a good girl by the age of 10. I felt like a fake.

It was then that we moved to Cape Town, finally a real city. Trailing us was our family’s financial success in the construction business and we went from a farm in the bush to living in Cape Town’s most prominent and luscious suburb, Bishopscourt. A year later, my father’s long-felt heartache and pining for the ocean kicked in and we moved to the seaside town of Gordon’s Bay.

My parents were divorced when I started high school. I was glad because I had grown emotionally weary of living with my father’s verbal criticism. My sister used to say, “Going to dad is like willingly having your knees smashed in with a cricket bat”. Although I tried not to rise to the bait, he always lured me into a discussion which ended up breaking me down. After the divorce, he also took to criticising my mother. He would say, “Your mother is a woman who never keeps her word. She broke her vows and left me, breaking up our family. She has no regard for love”. I felt betrayed, betwixt and between them. I knew my mother had been a remarkable wife – I had been witness to this. Eventually, I would say to him, “If you don’t stop I will leave the room.” It never worked. I’d leave and he would follow, and the barrage would go on and on. Even 30 years later, in his third marriage, everyone else is still to blame.

Teenage years are difficult. One day I stood on the balcony of my dad’s new triple-storey seaside mansion and thought, just jump, dammit, and end it. I felt isolated from life by the walls which kept my fears and insecurity hidden, while Julie retreated into a deep depression, and the ravine between us sisters widened.

Even though I was lonely, I was popular and well liked. Hell, I was even elected a prefect in my junior and high school years. I could play the game! With the years of consistent practice behind me, I realised I was good at acting. I was nicknamed “Carol Burnett”, a successful American comedian and star on a family show at that time. When a teacher left the classroom, they would all chant, “Penny, Penny”, and I would go up and act out a skit or narrate a joke rich in actions or foreign accents. I memorised over a 100 jokes and had them ready to roll. Lights, camera, action.

No one cottoned on to my stealthy deception and brilliant camouflage strategy. No one saw my self-hatred growing, not even I.

I like so many others I turned to religion, to God for forgiveness, acceptance, and the church’s promise of unconditional love. I found solace in a local youth group. My uncle George gave me a small paperback called Hello Mr God, This Is Anna. The pages were filled with innocent conversations between Anna and God. I was delighted to meet this new friend, God, and I too began daily talks, which offered me a kind of protection and hope in something greater.

At 17, I matriculated. On the inside, I looked to the future with a deep sense of loneliness and unworthiness. Outwardly, though, I reflected a joyous, fun-loving, popular blond with smiling blue eyes. I knew deep down that what I depicted did not represent the truth of who I was nor what I was experiencing. Keeping up the façade was exhausting and I felt like a mountain climber who kept climbing but never summited the mountain, day after day drawing on my psychological and physical strength to keep moving forward.

After my mother remarried she never lifted a hand to me again. Her new husband was very unlike my father. He was a chartered accountant, reserved, strong, analytic, and a man of few words. When he spoke, however, you knew each word was counted. “Think twice and cut once” he would say.

But he loved my mom, quietly, unreservedly, and uncritically. With the love and support of her new husband and a spiritual seeking, she too began her own quiet yet powerful transformation, or rather, magnificent metamorphosis. This transformation was an invaluable example that led me to believe that although leopards weren’t supposed to be able to change their spots, my mom changed hers. She became a reader of Joel Goldsmith, practised meditations, and slowly but surely her hard exterior melted and she became a warm, giving loving woman. She became a mother who stood beside my bed and never left my side whilst I recovered from having my gall bladder removed in hospital. She would listen to my troubles, passing only kind words of support, her speech like a healing balm soothing my wounds. She found the courage to look into her suffering, and out of this emerged a heart of acceptance, love, and kindness, not just for my sister and me, but for anyone who came her way. Her every day was spent collecting clothes for AIDS babies, visiting the old and lonely, and paying attention to her family’s needs. We became best friends. She was the person I felt I could tell anything. To this day, she has my absolute trust and undying love.

She never wants to speak of her past; she doesn’t want to address my childhood, and when I try, big tears well up in her eyes. So I have chosen to leave the past unspoken because some burdens are so heavy, only silence can carry them. Forgiveness is a balm and through the combination of my open heart and my mother’s relentless love in action, we have forged a closeness that a young girl can only dream of.

I had started out wanting to be an actress. I took drama, singing, dancing, and debating until my final year of school. But that year, 1986, perhaps being forced to face the future, I was agonisingly aware of my façade, and I no longer wanted to act. I had become almost painfully religious and was going to “save the world”. Forbidden by both parents to study to be a minister of the faith (because if you thought acting didn’t pay …), I decided to study social work at the University of Stellenbosch and become a professional at saving the world.

My father had this unsurprising insight: “I don’t think you should go to university. It’s really difficult and only clever people make it.”

Determined to prove him wrong, I passed my first year. But I found that having grown up in an entrepreneurial family with my innovative spirit and chutzspa, I would not make good a social worker. Confused about what to do, I followed in my big sister’s footprints and studied a three-year marketing and public relations course. I still wanted to make a difference in the lives of others, but perhaps I’d find another way of doing it.

At university, I seemed to get lost in the city, the rush, and the noise. I no longer listened to my own voice and I was starving for love. I developed an addiction to relationships and was oblivious of my dependence on men’s attention, of my need for them to make me feel significant.

Soon after my 18th birthday, during my first term at varsity, I met Gerhard, a gorgeous, tall 27-year-old with a six-pack to die for, a black belt in karate, and a passion for conservation. With Gerhard, I experienced the wonder and excitement of a sexual union for the first time. I had been protecting my virginity but during those months I questioned why God wanted me not to eat this most tasty and wonderful fruit. We dated for a few months, and each day was saturated with the bliss of infatuation, a kind of magical wonder-dust which floated in the air and made everything colourful and good. The laughter, lust, desire led to us making love.I don’t think anyone’s first time is great – I was so nervous – but my favourite part was waking up in his arms, my naked body against his, the warmth, the intimacy, the surrender. It felt right and beautiful and even though I had broken the church’s rules and lost my virginity before marriage, I was happy and the loss felt more like a gift.

His charm and good looks attracted women like bees to a honey jar wherever we went, and I tried not get jealous. I was so crazy about him, that I did feel frightened of losing him, but I tried to conceal my jealousy and insecurities. We were on different campuses and at the end of that year he was going to do his practical year in the Eastern Cape Province far, far away.

I was smitten. I couldn’t face the separation. I was also not enjoying social work and had no idea what else I could do. But then I got an idea. My sister, who was in the third and final year of her Marketing Diploma, lived in Port Elizabeth, a town in the same province that Gerhard was moving to at the end of the year. Impulsively, I applied to Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University and registered for the three year Public Relations and Marketing course.

I was so excited I’d kept it a secret until everything was organised. The day before I was going to tell him, he announced that he had met someone new and that we should break up. I was devastated! Right under my little nose he had started seeing another girl and I had been clueless.

Was I too clingly? Too desperate? Too easy? Too serious? Too young? My self-worth plummeted. My wonder-dust blew away, and I stood alone, breathing in the stench of disappointment and heartbreak.

I moved to Port Elizabeth with a hope for new beginnings. I shared a garden cottage with a fun loving nursing student, Sally Geldart, who goaded me on to be fancy-free and live the student life.

I was young and reckless. Gerhard had started his practical year and was based in a forestry reserve on a mountain top three hours’ drive from the university. Every month, as hard as I tried, all resistance would crumble, and I would drive to see him. I ignored his misdemeanors, overlooking the fact that “my replacement” also visited him. I made love to him, pretending I was the only one in the world for him.

The visits became more irregular and I was like a dog pining over the death of his owner. I began eating excessively and I would go to parties with Sally, but my heart no longer seemed to be inside my body. I felt like an amoeba, drifting around aimlessly.

During spring vacation, I visited my father, who had also moved to the Eastern Cape and now had a Bonsmara cattle farm outside East London. He had returned to his roots and it brought back memories for me too, being near to where we had grown up. By now I had gained 10 kilograms and was feeling more than melancholy. I felt depressed.

After the first day we went for a walk on the beach, which lay a kilometre away from the farm. We sat silently in the car on the way there. The beach stretched for miles; there was no one else to be seen. We walked hand in hand and my father wanted to know what was troubling me. I was scared to tell him the truth. He wanted his daughter to marry as a virgin.

“What is going on, my girl?” he plied me for information. “Tell Dad.”

I couldn’t hold it in. The reservoir wall broke, and in a flood of tears I told him about my first relationship and the avalanche of heartache that had followed.

When I was finished, he was shaking his head as if he couldn’t believe that any man would let down his little girl, but instead he exclaimed, “How could you do this to your own father? Do you have so little respect for me and our family? Where are your values, your morals? What you have told Dad today, I will never forget; you have brought dishonour upon me.”

I could not believe the words I was hearing. They seemed to appear as mysteriously as the ocean mist but they were not as gentle.

Wracked with guilt, shame pumped through my veins.

The next few years at varsity were hazy and uneventful. I battled to stay committed to the course. I found the work boring and the lectures predictable, but I forged on to avoid any further failure and disappointment to my family.

Finally, I qualified in 1990. Now twenty-one and single, it was travel time. I was off to the UK and Europe for a year. I wasn’t sure how I would pay for it all, but I had acquired a code 14 truck driver’s license, so at worst I could drive tourist buses. During the years of apartheid, we were not supposed to be able to work legally in London or have bank accounts, but we all did.

My base was Golders Green, a quaint, predominantly Jewish suburb situated on the Northern tube line (tube lines were my orientation tool) in London. I shared a commune with 10 other travellers from Australia, South Africa and Brazil. I was way too Christian to smoke pot, or indulge in getting horribly drunk at the Hare and Hound, but I did have fun with my fellow travellers and the camaraderie pulling foreigners together in a strange land gave me a warm fuzzy feeling.

There was another Australian Penny living in the commune with her Australian boyfriend. He was a fitness fanatic and their room was above mine on the third floor. One morning I politely asked, “Please can you do gym and skipping at more reasonable hours? The banging on the floor boards is really loud late at night.”

He and Penny rolled around the floor in laughter. “Yeah, no problem,” he cackled. “By the way, that banging is fucking, darling.” I blushed, standing in the reality of my naiveté, but hell, it was a great joke even at my expense. From that day on, couples retreated to their rooms at night and would say, “Good night, Penny darling, off to do our skipping.”

I squirrelled away the money from my telesales job to travel and kept some to buy tickets to every show I possibly could. I was in Penny Heaven. Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, Cats, Aspects of Love … yes, these were a few of my favourite things! I also began a hate relationship with my guttural South African accent and began elocution lessons on a Wednesday, for we South Africans are lazy speakers who don’t round off our vowels.

My six-month UK visa was due to expire and the cold snowy winter was over; spring was on its way, and so was I. Traditionally, travellers would leave the UK and travel towards Pamplona, Spain for the Running of the Bulls Festival in July, and then they would head out through Europe ending in Munich, Germany for the Oktoberfest in September. But no, not I.

I wasn’t going to travel in the back of a minivan, waking with daily hangovers on a prescribed tourist route. That’s not an adventure, that’s dull stereo-typical travel, I thought. I left my comfy commune of collaborators and caught the ferry from the white cliffs of Dover. I felt welcomed by the French shores of Calais and had only a short bus ride between me and my first night in Paris. But in my pursuit of adventure, I had failed to find out where in Paris the bus would drop us. When it did, I watched the bus drive away, the rain pouring down, and I stood alone unnoticed on a street corner. Because of my tight budget on which I planned to travel for five months, I tried to ask for help, but my lack of French didn’t help, and I was repeatedly told, “Je ne parle pas Anglais.” I finally succumbed and hailed a cab, showed him my latest edition of the travel guide Let’s Go Europe, and pointed to the address of a youth hostel which was supposedly located in the centre of Paris. Joyfully we arrived at the front door within 10 nippy minutes and I scrambled out in anticipation, gladly parting with a few francs, the heavy backpack still glued to my back with clammy rain residue.

The threatening grey sky and the onset of night could not dampen my excitement. But I was devastated to hear the words, “There is no more room in the Inn” and, more bad news, the nearest youth hostel was over an hour away.

It was at this point that I realised not having travel plans and embracing the sheer intrigue of uncovering new and exciting places was a dreadful fairytale. I stood outside in the deserted square and wiped intrusive tears from my cheek. After a while, I stumbled upon a small dingy hotel where I spent my first night, happy that I had a bed. Buying a banana for my meagre dinner, I excitedly sat working out in francs what change I had been given. I went to sleep singing a song from Annie. And you know what? The sun did come out the next day. The youth hostel that had turned me away the night before now had an open bed and I felt cheerful again.

I spent the following days immersing myself in Paris, falling in love with a culture steeped in ancient tradition. The world-class museums and the sight of the glass pyramid at the Louvre sent shivers through my bones, as did catching sight of the Eiffel Tower while crossing the romantic Pont des Arts over the Seine. Or walking after dark with the lights of Notre Dame dancing across the river. Or strolling along the Champs Elysees. I strongly feel that Paris has a fairy-tale quality that brings people together. It was Ernest Hemingway who said a similar thing about Paris: “The people that I liked and had not met went to the big cafes because they were lost in them and no one noticed them and they could be alone in them and be together.” I made fleeting friendships with so many people. My favourite was an Australian girl, Katie Whyte, and we got the entire youth hostel to join us on a ferry trip down the Seine, for which I improvised completely fabricated stories about statues and buildings much to the laughter and entertainment of the group.

Here, fuelled by my rebellion against being told what to do and how to do it or else, I was free, welcome to take the road less travelled, only to find that in the midst of these acts of defiance, my fellow travellers were continually going in the opposite direction, which was not great for building friendships or collecting travel buddies. But I found genuine joy over the months of my journey. I embarked on solo travel without knowing the language, or how to navigate the cities, and I loved it all!

My EuroRail pass allowed me to stop wherever my heart desired. For instance, after Munich I ended up in the heart of the black forest disembarking from a train which would only return a day later. On my arrival in the village, I strolled from inn to inn, knocking on their carved wooden doors to find accommodation. I soon learnt that the gaiety which surrounded their annual festival weekend meant that all the beds were booked. By nightfall, a pious-looking hotel manager surprised me with a generous act of pity and gave me permission to stay the night in his five-star hotel, in a single old storage room with a skinny bed, and he included a lavish buffet breakfast and the use of the hotel facilities for an only few deutsche mark.

Exploring the modern hotel, which had an invigorating blend of sophistication and mountain getaway atmosphere, I felt the warm spirit of the staff, and even though my attire resembled that of a dishevelled street urchin, I was welcomed. I came upon the most beautiful heated indoor pool surrounded by massive panes of glass and, looking through the misted windows, I could see the majestic snow-clad Alps surrounding me. I sank into the warm water, engulfed by what felt like pure joy, experiencing the kind of deep-seated security a foetus would experience inside the safest place in the world … a haunting magical moment.

On to more snow-clad Alps in Switzerland. Sometimes my spontaneity paid off handsomely. For instance, when I stepped off the train in Salzburg, Austria, I was immediately absorbed into the celebration and festivities of The Mozart Festival. The town was alive with the sound of music – its market places, cafes, narrow cobblestone streets, all immersed in musical mystery.

My travels were a multi-level, multi-sphered education in life. I felt proud of myself taking on this expedition, and when I felt lonely I forced my extrovert self to chat to others. My biggest challenge, I found, did not lie in coping with loneliness but was that I spoke only English, unlike the typical European pupil who studies multiple languages before becoming a teen. This was especially clear to me in Hungary, Italy, Greece, and Turkey, where language challenges were at their peak.

Of all my travel destinations, Italy was the country that melted my soul and I was his mistress. Each Italian city invited me and I was willing to stand vulnerable and exposed. My ignorance of the great Renaissance artists and sculptures made the seduction even more breathless.

A few years prior to this, during a quest in a second-hand store, the novel called The Agony and Ecstasy, a biography of Michelangelo written by American author Irving Stone, had beckoned me. I flipped through the cumbersome tome, sharing countless days and nights with Michelangelo as he painstaking lay on his back painting the Sistine Chapel.

Now, I felt that each city was a sumptuous meal feeding my hunger for art, culture, and learning. I also felt inadequate and overwhelmed by the beauty, talent, and passion exuded not only by each city but also by that city’s people. I felt as if I had been living under a large rock at the southernmost point of Africa.

Florence beckoned me into his arms and I began attending art lectures presented by an American man whose apartment lay alongside Florence’s magnificent cathedral, the Duomo, a structure which took two centuries to be deemed finished. I soaked in the detail slide after slide, and would then set about my personal discoveries of the sculptures, doors, and artworks highlighted in the evening’s presentations. I became such a regular that he asked me to help with the wine and slide presentations. In between, I continued my travels around Rome, Naples, Sicily, Sardinia, and further northeast to Venice. I didn’t want to leave.

The artist and I became friends. One night after the presentation, he said, “Why don’t you use my spare room while you are travelling?”

I could not believe his words. “Really? That would be great! Then I could leave my heavy pack and explore Italy.” I secretly hoped he was offering it for free, although my father always said there were no free rides in life.

But he said: “No charge, you can help me in the evenings when you are here.”

I was so excited. I could spend my room fee money on more travelling, and I left for Tuscany the next morning. Rolling hills in soft green and sunshine, medieval towns, ancient villas and farmhouses, olive trees, vineyards, and rustic food – the seduction was gaining wicked proportions, the spell was cast, and I couldn’t bear to leave. Love-struck, I bade farewell with a solemn promise to return.

Arriving back in Florence on an extremely hot spring day, I walked to my new shared apartment at the Duomo, feeling dirty and exhausted. I felt watched while bathing, and looked out the window to see the artist standing on the balcony watching me. I uncomfortably finished and quickly exited the small rooftop bathroom, heading for my guest room to rest. He opened the door and forced himself on to me, saying, “I know you want this.” Yes, I was naïve and inexperienced but I didn’t feel I had given him permission. When he was finished, he got up and said: “Get dressed. We are going to get the wine for tonight’s presentation.” I was like a robot, following him to the market like a mute. It felt like a slow-motion picture. This was rape. Although he had not hurt me, I felt violated by his action of stealing something precious which was not his to take, forcefully, without consent or consideration.

That night the show went on and one of the guests was a Canadian puppeteer who arrived with others to entertain us on the balcony in exchange for a glass of vino blanco under the star-studded sky in this city of wonder. I listened to his adorable experiences about making the Muppet show, and felt I had been cast a lifeline to enable me to leave immediately. I sidled up to him and asked, “Would you please walk me to the station when you leave? I have a train to catch?” My bags were packed; I was ready.

I walked out the door thinking of all the things I wanted to say, but hollow words make no sound. This puppeteer genius Stephen Braithwaite was my guardian angel that night. We walked and walked and when he heard that I had no definite destination nor did I know what time my train left, he was stunned. “Let me put you up at my hotel – in your own room, I promise,” he said. “You are young and beautiful, and you can’t be out here in the night on your own.”

His generosity and authenticity shone through but my trust levels were low and my defenses high. He waved goodbye as I took the first overnight train I could find. Sitting in my compartment, I interrogated myself like a Nazi officer: Why didn’t you scream? Why didn’t you report him? Deep down do you even think you are worth fighting for? Didn’t you provoke him by bathing? - But I didn’t know that he was watching, I answered in my head in self-defense. Don’t you think you sent mixed messages by accepting the spare room? Why didn’t you tell him to fuck off instead of following him to the market? I was too bewildered to offer myself any answers.

I can’t remember the details of the days that followed. I felt a kind of separation from existence, as if the umbilical cord to life had been severed and I was on the outside looking in on the workings of a world I was no longer a part of. A few days later, I found myself in the heel of the boot, southern Italy. I was in the port of Brindisi boarding a ferry to the Greek island of Corfu. I met some delightful American tourists, Erica and another much older man, Tom, also travelling solo. We stuck together on the ferry and travelled around Greece together like the three musketeers, the perfect glue needed to mend my tender heart. I buried the negative experience and immersed myself in the ancient of ancients, the unfolding mythology, the wisdom, and the home of Aristotle and Plato.

You know the idiom, That's all Greek to me? Well, I now understood the truth of that saying as I looked at the meaningless collection of weird letters and symbols surrounding me. In Athens, I bought a ticket to what I thought would be a philharmonic orchestra, as the poster had one recognisable word, Verdi, and the location was the Odeon of Herodes Atticus on the slopes of the Acropolis.

It was 1991, but arriving at the theatre nestled in Acropolis, I was transported back in time. I took my undesignated seat in the semi-circular amphitheatre along with thousands of others. The stage’s backdrop was a gigantic stone wall intermittently broken by Greek arches, and through the arches shone the night sky and the lights of Athens. As the evening progressed, the night sky darkened and the magic of our galaxy set the tone for a night I will never forget. The opera turned out to be Aida with breathtaking gigantic sets of ancient Egypt using floor-to-sky statuary, regal-looking staircases, horses, and costumes shimmering with gold: a visual experience forever emblazoned on my memory. I left feeling redeemed, enhanced. Everything paled in the light of that magical night which reminded me of humankind’s greatness; that we can experience the innate joy of being transported into a different world for just one incomprehensible evening, an experience that replaces darker worlds with light, joy, and magnificence. I took that which cannot be explained in words with me in my heart. Something of great beauty illuminated my path and I awoke the next day feeling once again connected to the world, knowing I was going to be fine.

Ferrying from island to island, I finally landed in the port of Bodrum, south of Istanbul. The contrast from the Grecian islands was a delight, and the place was filled with bright and colourful markets and an alluring medieval castle. The Three Musketeers travelled up towards Istanbul. Erica had been given money and strict instructions to buy carpets from an authorised Sotheby’s carpet dealer, so we were on a mission. On hearing our retail therapy plans, Tom said farewell, leaving behind the bustling city and its markets to find the soothing shores of Abant Lake, a few hours away.

Istanbul is a fast-paced city with a signature skyline. The seven hills of the Old City are crowned with a collection of imperial mosques which dominate the skyline with their delicate minarets, distinctive domes, and curvaceous casings. I discovered halva (a sweet tahini-based dessert) which became my daily treat. We visited the manic Grand Bazaar, which is one of the oldest and largest undercover markets in the world, filled with sugar and spice and all things nice for a “special price”.

On day three, we looked up the Sotheby’s-recommended Oriental rugs and carpets dealer. Buying carpets in Turkey was a ritualistic experience that lasted three days and the rest of my life. You see, carpet shopping is a fantastic social event. Each day you enter the shop, you are offered a seat and something to drink – normally Turkish coffee served in gorgeous miniature glasses which resemble something I felt should hold tequila, except they were filled with a kind of sludge called coffee. This was replaced periodically with small tulip-shaped glasses of herbal tea, sometimes apple, sometimes other unrecognisable fruity varieties. The tea bearer announced with pride, “You know that in Turkey we drink more tea than anyone else in the world. Even the British are too slow to beat us.” In quiet disbelief, I smiled, grappling with the rim of the absurd glass, trying to avoid burning my fingertips on the boiling hot tea. “At least the British invented a tea cup with a handle,” I mumbled under my breath.

The conversation was warm and friendly, and gradually created an atmosphere of trust. Mr Sotheby’s himself soon realised it was Erica who wielded the buying power, and they discussed Boston where she was from, her family, budget, and how much time we had, preferences for colours, size, patterns. I sat drinking tea, amused by the entertainment. Mr Sotheby’s would intermittently give us a short course in Turkish carpetology, of how they were made, the wools and silks, the fakes, the carpet-making regions of Turkey, and with alacrity organised for Erica and me to spend one day at one of the carpet-making sites.

After that, the daily ritual continued to unfold and two assistants would unfurl a carpet, toss it in the air, and let it fall to the floor. Another followed, and another, and another, and another, the colours and patterns cascading before us. Then one carpet would catch Erica’s eye and she would hold up her hand to signal. The assistant would put it aside, before the process recommenced.

At the end of our daily session, a dozen carpets were lying on the side line and who knows how many hundreds folded and put away. More tea or coffee was ordered. Mr Sotheby’s expert applauded Erica: “Your choices, your eye, you have excellence taste.” Erica purchased five expensive but magnificent pieces, and like a cobra I too moved to the music of the carpet sellers. I purchased a few carpets which I shipped home, hoping to sell them on my return and completely extending my credit card limit. But I was young and the charmer had played us.

After payment, he formally invited us to join them and their other customers at a banquet dinner. Erica and I were fetched from the youth hostel by taxi and transported to what felt like the underbelly of Istanbul. The restaurant was underground and above our heads were water pipes and around us marble columns, the lighting supplied by massive candelabras. The host explained that they served delicious Ottoman cuisine using original recipes and cooking methods so that we could taste truly authentic dishes. It felt like I was participating in the re-enactment of a Turkish dinner that took place 500 years ago. The party didn’t end here, and it was on to Mr Sotheby’s home for the after-party.

Reaching our destination an hour across town, a little weary from the wine and fine cuisine, we waited and waited, but no one else arrived. It was now one a.m. Mr Sotheby’s agreed that the others were not coming and added that, since his family was away on holiday, Erica and I should spend the night as his guests occupying the children’s rooms. I felt the kind of foreboding a cobra may feel when he hears the first sound of the flute, but acquiesced.

We all went to our separate rooms but I couldn’t sleep, tossing and turning, feeling a bit like a prisoner. Eventually, as I started to drift off, I heard the door open but only darkness poured into the room. I heard his breathing; I smelt him come nearer. I was lying on my stomach, and he climbed on top of me and forced my head into the pillow. After he had taken what he had come for, without a word he closed the door behind him. I don’t know how much time passed and moving wasn’t an option. Later, I mechanically moved towards the bathroom, blood sticky on my legs. I showered and cried gently until morning. I called Erica into the bathroom. Between sobs, I recounted the night’s events.

She looked at me with disbelief and said, “Well, that can’t be. He didn’t come into my room – why would he come into yours?” When I took her into the little girl’s room the blood-stained sheet had been removed and the garishly bright Turkish fabrics and ornaments seemed to mock me.

We left and said our goodbyes as one would after having a delightful meal.

I took a taxi to Istanbul Atatürk Airport and waited to take the next plane to London. I arrived on the doorstep of the old house in Golders Green like a returning prodigal and received a welcome to fit. The place was full, but for five pounds a day I got to couch surf in the TV room. The earliest flight I could get back home was a month away. I did odd jobs like cleaning and gardening to pay for my spot on the couch. My menstrual cycle was out of whack. Weeks passed and fear started to replace the subterranean disgust I had been living with. I made an appointment at the local clinic and arrived for my pregnancy test. The nurse’s kind words opened a floodgate of suppressed fears, and a sense of sheer devastation that I could be carrying a baby I definitely did not want, not like this! But the news was good. It was an all-clear, and she also gave me all kinds of tablets and medicines to avoid getting any unwanted diseases.

I was in a deep state of gratitude and even though what had happened was stayed with me every day as un unspeakable horror, at least the disaster would end here. I flew home, taking with me adventures, memories, my new love affair with Italy, and a joyful sense produced by seeing Europe in all its beauty.

Essentially, though, I was numb. I’d disconnected myself from my feelings. The violations, the loneliness – they had all been too much to cope with. I didn’t want to think about the tragedies; I wanted to focus on all the positive things. I felt a bit like the vast banks of magnificent clouds I saw out of the airplane window, directionless, grounded nowhere, without any roots, empty and at the mercy of the winds that blew them any which way.

You cannot look twice at the same river, for fresh waters are ever flowing in.” I had written down these words displayed at an exhibition in Athens, as my life seemed to echo the Greek philosopher Heraclitus’ sentiments.

But maybe nothing had changed; it only seemed so, because I was changed.

Awaiting me at the post office was a parcel with my Turkish carpets. Ironically oriental rugs all have a unique design representing a specific geographic area with symbols expressing a certain message. The experiences that lay woven in the fibres of those rugs, escaped from the magnificent designs, unwelcome and unwanted. My mother took them to a local interior decorator and got me the best price I could get for them to settle my debt. They were a symbol of times I had buried.

My sister and others asked me the proverbial question, “What do you want to do with your life?”

My response was automatic: “I want to marry and have a family.”

No, no, you can’t be serious,” my sister said. “You have to have more ambition than that, surely?”

I felt a bit ashamed about my response. Perhaps she was right. She immediately organised me a job at her husband’s advertising agency in Johannesburg, hoping I would build on my marketing qualification and go somewhere with my career. However, much like my father, I loved the sea. I longed for the smell of the ocean, the sea sand between my toes, the icy wind blowing through my hair. So, after a year of gaining valuable experience in the country’s economic hub, I returned to my ocean, to Cape Town.

I was 22 years old and, adamant I was not moving in with my parents, I stayed at a backpackers and got a job as a waitress (which soon became manageress) of a small night-time restaurant, Friends, in Green Point, the centre of Cape Town. It was a delightful place, the walls filled with posters of old shows hosted in the local theatres going back 20, 30 years, and frequented by theatre people,

I dressed like the Grand Madame in long dresses accentuating my long curly hair. I wasn’t going to be seen as just any old waitress! After a few weeks of staying at the backpackers, though, I found out they thought I was a prostitute, as I was the only resident with the latest VW Golf and a down duvet on my bed. Above all, I returned in the early hours of every morning. The following day I invited them all for a glass of wine to dispel the hilarious myth.

I also managed to find my first marketing client, and soon had enough money to rent myself a beautiful garden cottage nestled below Table Mountain.

One evening, a man named Michael had booked the whole of Friends for his birthday, but it was his brother, Andrew, who made the greater impression on me. My age, he was good looking with a charming smile. After much banter he left, having memorised my cell number, and the following week we had our first date.

He had a tender heart and a kind disposition. Fish-breeding was his hobby, and he nicknamed me his precious “guppy fishy.” But I was his second-ever girlfriend, he had never travelled out of South Africa, he was insanely jealous, and we fought over things which I considered petty. We were from two different upbringings and this put a strain on our relationship upfront. Within six months of dating, we were talking about marriage, but also seeing a counsellor to try to figure out why we disagreed so often. We experienced a lot of conflict and our therapist was worried. She felt that our arguments were rooted in incompatibility. She asked us to consider giving the relationship more time and if it didn’t settle, she recommended we part ways. We ignored this advice, but accepted her dispute resolution technique for dummies.

So am I right that you find yourselves in a repetitive cycle during your discussions, that you can’t agree, and that these disagreements lead to severe disputes and then anger. One of you normally leaves or, Andrew, you go into complete silence mode?”

Yes,” we agreed in unison.

Okay, think of an object, any object that comes to mind.”

I looked across her table and saw a red post box paper weight. “Post box!” I exclaimed.

All right, the next time you feel this happening, whoever notices the argumentative pattern starting must say ‘post box’. Then you both need to stop the conversation and evaluate the argument on a scale of importance. Say one to ten. Both of you must be given a chance to weight the argument.”

The scale was discussed and agreed upon:

One to three: Not important, drop the whole thing.

Four to six: Not that important, but try to resolve the matter before it got out of hand.

Seven to ten: Important but emotions too high, agree on a future time to discuss it.

We were young and childish in our ways and this was a great tool which allowed us to break the pattern of nonsensical arguments, but also made us evaluate the conversation instead of just getting caught up in the frenzy.

I was happy. Hell, everything worth anything was hard work. I felt wanted and needed. Maybe this was my ticket to a new life? Around that time, I started a new job working at a recruitment company, and Andrew, a manager on a chicken farm, was offered a promotion in the Natal Midlands. Soon we had picked out the ring; it was inevitable.

We held the proverbial white wedding at the family home, and, bon voyage, we were on our way!

Nottingham Road was considered to be South Africa’s colonial outback, and this was where we started our new beginnings. We were given a farm house on the pedigree chicken breeding site, surrounded by chicken coops. Further away were a lush forest and the most beautiful mountains and majestic countryside, scattered with farms, hunting lodges, hotels, elite private schools, country estates, and family homes dating back to the 1850s.

We started a wine club, and making friends was easy for a young couple. I was transferred from my company in Cape Town and had a job in the nearby town. Everything seemed to be going well until one day, after just a month of being there, we received an exorbitant telephone account amounting to almost my month’s salary. It turned out that Andrew had been calling a sex hotline that charged by the second. He also had a stash of pornography which had to enter our bedroom in order for us to have a “healthy” sex life. This started to form a crack in our relationship. “What’s your problem with magazines?” he would say. “You say I’m jealous, but you are Jealous Penny, jealous of a silly magazine. You know I love you.”

Yet this was supposed to be my honeymoon period, and I had to share it with slutty girls in a magazine. His actions reinforced what I knew. I alone was not enough. He needed more.

One Saturday all hell broke loose. I had started a bonfire in the barbeque on the veranda and was gleefully burning his glossy and, I’m guessing, expensive porn collection.

What the fuck are you doing?” he shouted, trying to save the unburnt stash.

“You choose,” I said. “Either I’m enough for you or I’m leaving.” He hesitated. I picked up my car keys, stuffed some clothes in a bag, and left.

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