Octopus Fingers

by Arja Salafranca

 

“Why don’t you smile at the customers?” Tammy asks her. “Smile at them, make them feel welcome, comfortable. Smile, then ask them if you can help them. Smile at them for God’s sake!”
Tammy is talking to Hazel, her newest employee, friend of a friend. It had been a favour to hire her, this young, tall, yet sullen looking woman with the black hair that hung in flat sheets on either side of her head. Hazel stares blankly back at Tammy,
“OK,” Hazel murmurs.
Hazel tries to smile that day. She honestly does. But the action doesn’t come easily. Who cares, she thinks. What do the customers care if she asks them if they need help? If they want something like chocolates they can’t find, or need a brand of cigarettes, then they’ll ask for it, surely. Tammy is irritated. She’s built up her business from nothing. When she divorced, she only got the house. Now, she owns a small sweet shop in a mall. She makes a living.
Hazel goes to the library in her lunch hour. Attached to the mall, it’s a small, suburban library, filled with dusty old books, and a few newer ones. She devours books at night in the hours before she goes to sleep.
The days are long and boring. Tammy flits in and out, but it’s Hazel’s job to stay here the whole day, except for an hour’s lunch. After work, Hazel goes shopping at the Checkers. She has a five-year-old child, Jasmine, who waits for her at the end of each long day. When Hazel appears, Jasmine rushes to greet her.
Then Hazel takes off her heels, and unpacks the food and starts preparing supper. Jasmine is a typical five-year-old who does not like eating exotic foods: her diet seems to consist mainly of fish fingers, hamburgers, spaghetti, toast, yoghurt and apples. She has a fit if the different items of food on her plate touch each other. Tastes must be separate: each taste must be complete before moving on to the next one.
After supper Jasmine has a bath, and then Hazel reads a story to her before Jasmine goes to sleep. Then Hazel is finally alone, free to watch television or read her books, and simply not talk. That is the most important thing: not to have to talk. It’s talk talk talk all day, talk to the customers, talk to Tammy.It is relaxing not to talk. She watches TV or reads until it’s nearly midnight.

Hazel dreams of the shop, she dreams of Tammy, unhappy because Hazel doesn’t smile at the customers. But Hazel can’t lose this job. It is all that stands between having to move back in with her parents with Jasmine.
At times Hazel dreams of the bazaars of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. She dreams of the Israeli kibbutz they lived on: she dreams that she is, once more, ironing hundreds of pairs of pants. A mind-numbing job that, ironing the same styles of clothes, only the sizes and the shades of brown and grey differed. And she dreams of Federico, tall, violent Federico with his jet black hair and thick black eyebrows, and that powerful, maniacal look in his almost black eyes. Once more, in these dreams, Federico lunges at her, angry, stoned, wanting her to yield, have sex when she is not ready. When she is not, he hits out.

She awakes from these dreams, breathless, terrified. She smokes at three, four in the morning then, the tip of her cigarette glowing in the greyness. She does not turn on the light, Jasmine sleeps a few metres away in a cordoned off corner of the studio flat they share, and she doesn’t want Jasmine to wake. Already Jasmine has disturbed sleep.

***

Five months later, Hazel is a waitress at a restaurant, The Doughnut. The days are as long, and more tiring, but the money is better, and she is busier than she ever was at the sweet shop. Hazel complains to her parents that she never sees the sun. She goes to work and comes home, and by then the day is gone. “I could be working underground,” Hazel complains to her mother.
But her mother, fingering her magazines at her “work” table does not answer, except with a queasy, “That’s life, Hazel.”
When Jasmine is not there, she says, “It’s what you chose. Your father and I warned you not to go after that man, but you did. Now you have a child and your responsibility is to look after that child. Your life is over now, your child is what is important.”
Hazel is thirty-five, and does not, obviously, want her life to be over, does not, in fact, feel that her life is over. But there’s nothing now, but the huge relief of waking up without Federico every morning, without the fear, the tiptoeing around a man who could be violent or gentle and sweet, depending on his mood or whether he had smoked grass the night before, or had got high on speed. And the fear that he would discover the places she had stashed their money for the month and spend it on drugs.
And then, writing home, begging her parents to send money for food, medicine, rent. She took jobs: once she was a maid to a German woman who had moved to Tel Aviv after the war, another time she tried to work in a supermarket, but Hazel’s Hebrew was too poor for dealing with customers. Federico did not work. He hadn’t worked in years. When the money finished he too wrote to his parents, and they too wired him cash, but they were poorer, and needier than Hazel’s parents.
“Ask Hazel’s parents!” his father would hiss down the line when he called. His father, a schoolteacher, didn’t have much to spare; his wife taught extra lessons in their apartment. Money was hard-earned. Hazel’s father, Herman, had a successful business; Hazel’s mother, Evelyn, did not work. Federico’s parents felt they should not have to send money in a never-ending stream to Israel when Hazel’s parents were so clearly well off.

She had met the tall, exotic-looking Spaniard at a beach party at the beginning of the seventies. Everyone was stoned at the party, including Hazel. They smoked grass or dropped acid, and lay on the beach and talked of psychedelic colours. This is what they did in the seventies.
Hazel had cut her long black hair that year. She had sold the car her parents had given to her as a wedding present, divorced the man she had married at twenty-one and bought a one-way ticket on Luxair for Europe. She worked in London as a secretary, it wasn’t legal, so she was paid poorly, and could not complain. London was swinging, alive, pumping with new ideas and energy.
Although London was also hard, Hazel also recalled these times as being fun and full of laughter. For the first time in her life she had felt free. Her parents were far away in Johannesburg, and it was too expensive to phone them.
She left London, living on the money from the sale of the car, slept in cheap pensions and hitchhiked all around Europe. In Spain Hazel made her way down to the Costa del Sol, where she had, one afternoon, gone to a party at a large house on the beach and met Federico Garcia.
He was tall and exotic. He spoke English with the rough, yet musical accent of the Spanish. He painted. He spoke six languages fluently. Hazel fell in love, with Spain, with a Spanish man, with the possibility that life could be different. You didn’t have to get born in Johannesburg and marry a Jewish man, and settle down to a home in the suburbs, and raise children who would then marry and have their own children, and so on. There were other worlds out there.
The summer they met, they went to parties, took acid, speed, smoked grass, and started living together. When winter came, they lived in small summerhouses on the beach where the water supply was erratic, you heard the sea roar loudly beyond the thin walls of the summer houses. Federico and Hazel threw mats and blankets on the floor.
No one who Hazel met through Federico seemed to work. They lived cheaply. That in itself was a type of freedom. She felt the ties of the past unloosening, she felt single again, not divorced, but single, the world opened a crack, the possibilities loomed. She and Federico moved often, never staying more than a month in one of the beach cottages. They moved crablike along the southern coast, staying in beach cottages.
She met his family. His parents could not speak English. Hazel met his brother, a history professor with a wife, two children and an apartment he was paying off. He too did not speak English, and communication was minimal.
Mostly though, Hazel and Federico lived on the beach and in the bars of the small Spanish towns they found themselves in. They did not visit Federico’s parents or his brother. They lived in another orbit where jobs and making money and paying off bonds were ridiculous appendages that dragged and tied you down. You need to be free, Federico would exclaim, “You can’t be free with a job,” he said. “The way to enlightenment lies in letting go of all material possessions.”

Hazel knew she was she was pregnant. Her periods had stopped, and she was gaining weight she couldn’t lose. The flat days stretched out: Federico spent them stretched out on a mattress, smoking, dropping acid. She thought she could feel the presence of the baby around her, watching, waiting. It was going to be a girl; she knew that, and this time she wasn’t going to get rid of it.
“Let’s go to South Africa,” Hazel suggested, “I’m pregnant. I’ll pay for your ticket.”

But it was a disaster. Her parents disapproved of Federico. He wasn’t Jewish for one thing, and he was foreign. Their daughter was pregnant, and not married. It was a scandal. One night her father, Herman, took Federico out for a meal. Her parents were talking about forcing her to have an abortion, if they could declare her insane, they could force an abortion on her. At the restaurant lounge Hazel’s father, Herman impressed on Federico that South Africa wasn’t the place for him: “If you leave there won’t be any problems for you.”

He left. Herman paid for the trip, and when Hazel found out she slammed her fist through the glass balcony door. Her father came home to shattered glass, Evelyn crying hysterically while Hazel sat stoic, unmoved, eyes glazed as though anaesthetised. There, amongst the fake antique furniture, with glass glinting on the rose-patterned carpet, she was given a choice: have an abortion voluntarily, for her own good; or it would be arranged that she would be committed to an insane asylum, and the state would force her to have an abortion anyway.

How do you measure pain and fear? The rain drummed against the windows of the aeroplane droning on towards Europe: the glass thick and concave, showed only the steaks of wet against a black night.
“I’m coming,” she had said over the phone to Federico now in Spain, “do you still want me?”
“Yes,” he said.
“I’m still pregnant,” she said. “I’m staying at a friend. My parents don’t know where I am. I have a ticket booked. But I don’t have much money left,” she said.
For days after that final ultimatum in her parents’ lounge, she had been silent, acquiescent. An appointment for an abortion was booked. She agreed it was for the best. She wasn’t married. The baby’s father could not support the child, she could not support a child, and she would ruin her chances of remarrying if she had a child out of wedlock. The child would be a bastard; everyone would know.
Hazel had sat there glumly, agreeing. But the night before the abortion she had calmly slipped out of her parents’ flat, saying she was going to the café for cigarettes. An old lover was waiting for her in his car. Hazel slipped into his seat and left without a word, without clothes or makeup or books. He kept her secret. Days later he took her to the airport, Hazel left South Africa again.

***

The first time he hit her she was six months’ pregnant. She lurched and fell against the wall, knocking her head, her glasses flying across the room. He was contrite, apologetic, gentle after that. He felt so bad, he said, he got so angry at life, sometimes, and he just couldn’t control it.
His eyes were soft, slightly rimmed with tears; he was sorry; he said he wouldn’t do it again.

Years later, looking back, you wonder how you could have ever been so stupid. Now you know what the words a blind range referred to.

It happens in increments. The first time there is disbelief, wild, unyielding incomprehension. There is forgiveness. And then there is more forgiveness. It has to be that way. You do not fall out of love so quickly, so easily. Perhaps you never do: love so slick, so illogical. Perhaps you never do: perhaps a part of you will cling, always, to that hope, that illusion. Even when bones have been broken, and eyes have been smashed, and bruises purple into the shape of clenched fists. The illusions shatter, disbelief sets in. Conversation stops after a while, and the violence takes over.

Federico promised he would get a job, and asked his parents for money. They moved back to Spain. They moved into yet another house, this one in the hills surrounding Malaga. When she was pregnant she befriended a cat. When it gave birth to three grey undernourished kittens, Federico drowned them in the well. The mother walked around for days afterward, looking for her babies.
Hazel gave birth at La Cruz Roja. Hazel, the Jewess, giving birth, surrounded by nuns at the Red Cross. She screamed in English, she roared expletives at the nuns who could not understand English, but could understand that this foreign woman was certainly swearing and cursing.
In one house they had no hot water. In another Hazel had to lug pails of water from a well set quaintly in a corner of an overgrown garden. For the winter they settled in a housed on a beach.
She wrote to her parents, sending them pictures of their first grandchild. There was a thaw, babies melt hearts. There was guilt. Federico could not find work, she wrote, there was no money for the baby’s clothes, medicine, food. Federico’s parents helped as much as they could, but they weren’t rich. And so, it started, year after year, the letters exchanged, the money wired. When Jasmine was eighteen months, Hazel’s mother came to visit.
For once the old, but visible barriers separating generations, a mother, a daughter, dissolved. There was anger, but there was also conciliatory anger. The child was now also a mother. The visit was successful, in its way. There was more money after that: “You should see how they’re living!” Evelyn told Herman. “They live in houses without electricity sometimes! Last year Hazel had to draw water from a well! Can you imagine it Herman? We didn’t bring Hazel up to be like this. She’s gone and made such a mess of her life; the least we can do is help out with some money. It’s the child I’m thinking of, of course. That no good Federico I wouldn’t give ice to if hell froze over.”

Hell did not freeze over. Federico could not hold down a job. For a day or two he would get up early, wash dishes at a bar, be a waiter at a restaurant, say he would try and teach at the language school in Fuengirola, but after a day or two he stopped going to work. He was tired; he wouldn’t get up till ten, eleven, noon. Hazel learned to hide the money she was sent from her parents. As she learned Spanish, she grew closer to the Garcias

Days pass. By the time Jasmine was three, Federico still could not support his family and yet he wanted more children. One day Hazel came home to find him boiling her diaphragm, trying to damage it without her seeing.
Now he said he was translating the Baghavad Gita, this was an important task, and would take many years. He couldn’t be expected to work while he was doing the translating. Hazel wondered if there weren’t already a Spanish translation of the book, but Federico said it wasn’t a reputable translation.
“It’s full of lies!” he said. “I’m going to do a pure, truthful translation!”
But when Hazel came back each day after buying food in the markets she found Federico lying on his mattress in a corner of the room. He was reading, or high on acid. Once he gave acid to the dog they had acquired. All day long the mongrel had walked in circles, constantly shaking his head.

The edge of despair, and love stretches, strangled, twisting, faint from one to the other. You can never tell, from the outside, what goes on in a relationship. You can never look in; the glass is hazy, misty from the steam of domestic intimacy and dispute.

She married him before they left for Israel. It was the only way they would be accepted on a kibbutz, as a married couple. Spain under Franco did not allow civil marriages, and so they had sailed to Cyprus where they married in Greek, a language neither understood. Jasmine drank a fanta in the heat of the registry office, and afterwards, they all strolled along the streets, looking in at shop windows at items they could not afford. The next day they sunbathed on rocks, underneath which the sea moved, silently.

You know when you’re making a mistake. You know when what you’re doing is wrong, but it’s a last ditch effort to save something; begin something else. Years later, Hazel would say she should never have married Federico, she knew, standing there in a hot small cramped room, listening to a quick marriage service performed in Greek, that she should not be there. “But I still thought he would change, might change, away from the domineering influence of his parents, his mother especially,. She had mollycoddled him from birth. He was her youngest son, and he couldn’t do anything wrong, And if he did, well, he’d grow out f it. I thought he might learn to take responsibility if we left Spain, went somewhere else, where we were both strangers. I thought he might have a bit of pride then.”

On the first kibbutz, he was assigned the job of milking the cows at five in the morning. It lasted a few days. Then they said he could pick fruit instead. It lasted a week. They put him to work in the kitchens, he came home after a morning washing dishes and shaved his head.
“Put your pear in the dustbin.” Jasmine stared back, defiant, the half-eaten pear poking amongst the debris of the ashtray. Jasmine shook her head. Her pear was now ashy and mixed in with the butts, she wasn’t going to touch it now. “Put it in the dustbin!” Federico roared, getting up to grab the child. She hid behind her mother fearfully. Sighing, Hazel picked the pear up and flung it in the bin. It went black after that.

The director of the kibbutz was sorry, but all members had to work, he said, as he told Hazel they had to leave. They moved to a hostel in Tel Aviv. It was a year before they were accepted on another kibbutz, a year, in which love died.
When her child cried in the early morning from the pain of an earache, Hazel shushed her in the darkness of the early morning kitchen, “You’ll wake your father, sssh, we’ll go to the clinic as soon it’s open.” Jasmine cried quietly, careful not wake her father. She knew. The fear was in both of them now.
At the clinic the doctor treating Hazel had a concentration number blazoned on her wrist. In the streets, Hazel pointed out the blue and white Israeli flag flapping in the wind. When they got back to the apartment at the hostel, Federico was groggily rising out of sleep. The days were spent before they had begun. Hazel’s parents still sent money, but it was never enough. The coins piled up on the bookcase seemed like a lot of money to Jasmine, but her mother said they weren’t.
Hazel took cleaning jobs, climbing up stepladders to clean chandeliers, washing out stranger’s kitchens, doing the jobs she had seen blacks doing all her life. The fact, the irony did not escape her, and she complained bitterly about the way she was living in the letters she wrote home. “I need new glasses, I need dental work, the money’s not enough to live on. Federico has had no luck getting any jobs, although his Hebrew is a hundred times better than mine. I’ve got a job cleaning houses, sometimes I read English books to a German woman who speaks English, but can’t see well enough to read anymore.”
What she didn’t write was that Federico had retreated further and further from her, from life, from responsibilities. There was no more pretence: he did not look for jobs, When he hit out at night, the neighbours heard the sounds of crashing, thumping. Jasmine mostly slept through, but the times she did not, she awoke to see her father flinging her mother’s head against the walls. The look was resigned, her mother silent as Federico expended his energy.
But there were nights when it was so bad, Jasmine ran out into the corridors, knocking on neighbour’s doors. Sometimes Jasmine and Hazel moved out of the apartment and into another smaller one, for a few days. Federico was always contrite, sorry, mortified almost. When he said he’d never do it again, Hazel no longer believed him.
But where else could they go? To go back to South Africa meant admitting defeat to her parents, it meant relying on them, the triumphant smug I-told-you-so that would follow, she knew. Yet, she was as reliant on them here as she would be at home, except here she had to talk a strange language and master another alphabet.
They were accepted onto another kibbutz. Once more Federico did not work, but they were lenient here, more willing to understand that Federico was “sick” and couldn’t do an eight-hour day. Instead he went more and more often to the seaside resort of Eilat. Hazel began to suspect he had someone there. Sometimes he stayed away a week at a time, ad the freedom was blissful, sweet and refreshing. Hazel hadn’t realised how tightly wired she had become. With Federico around she was tense all the time: she was tense in the morning when she awoke, wondering if Federico would wake up too, and what mood he would be in, and she was tense getting ready for her work in the kitchens, telling Jasmine to keep quiet as they dressed. And she was tense when she worked, wondering if Federico would come roaring through to the kitchen, high, irritable, demanding whatever it was she could not give him, and she was tense at night when they went to bed. If she refused, he burst his way in, and she, silent, so that the child would not be woken.
When he started staying in Eilat for weeks at a time, she wrote to her parents. At first they refused. No, they would not send tickets for her and her child. She had got herself into this mess; she could get herself out of it. She sent letters back, longer, more pleading letters. “I’m afraid he’ll try to kill me and Jasmine,” she pleaded. “The other day he said when she turns twelve he’ll rape her and force me to watch. What sort of a man would say this, even if he doesn’t mean this? And I don’t know that he doesn’t mean this.” It worked, it was true, all of it, and the truth worked.
They holed up in Jerusalem, those few days before catching the El Al flight to Johannesburg. They stayed with a friend who would keep their secrets. At the airport, security guards made them open up the cases, and then, in the middle of the airport, Jasmine had had to sit on the cases again while her mother tried frantically to close them. There was the dense clammy atmosphere of fear there.
Only on the plane did Hazel relax. She felt like all the air had been squashed out her. Jasmine picked at strange slices of the cold meat in her airline meal, and Hazel slept as she hadn’t slept for years, drunk on it, the freedom, drunk, each passing mile beneath the window the distance growing longer and longer.
Hazel heard that when Federico returned to the kibbutz he went mad looking for his wife and child. In the end he signed the divorce papers, relinquishing all custody or visitation rights to see Jasmine when Herman agreed to pay off all of Federico’s debts.

***

Sometimes Hazel and Jasmine go to the swimming pool in the townhouse complex. It’s here that Hazel starts to make friends, finds boyfriends. The first boyfriend she makes has skin cancer from years of sun tanning his fair, reddish skin; they go to bed soon after the first date. The child is asleep upstairs.
At The Doughnut Hazel became a manageress. Soon after getting the job as a waitress, she learned how to smile, and was promoted. Smiling mattered; seeming to care about the customers mattered. And then it took over: she cared that the orders were right, that the fat man who ate breakfast at the counter every morning had his bacon crisp, not soggy; and that the two secretaries who ate lunch every day shared dessert and received two spoons or forks for the dessert. It seemed as though the world simultaneously narrowed and opened up as she cared; as though scales were crumbling away from her eyes as the months passed. Life narrowed to a tight focus: she cared about the job, and strove to do as well as she could; the heavy dark blankness filled with kitchen orders, smiles from customers, an offer to become a manageress. Another offer at a brand new shopping centre opening up. The owners wanted her to run the restaurant at the new mall, she moved her child out of the studio flat they shared, Herman helped with the rent on a new townhouse with a pool in the complex.
“I’m sure I’ll meet men there,” Hazel said, appealing to her parents for help. “And Jasmine can make friends there, and she needs her own room. She’s growing up, she can’t keep crawling into my bed at night.”
Her mother was the one who was persuaded: “You need to get married again, soon,” she whispered to her daughter, “and soon. You’re still young enough, Hazel, by the time you’re forty it’ll be too late. The child needs a father. You need a man. And your father can’t carry on helping you with money. When he retires we’ll need all the money we have.”

Life is strict, ordered. Her child begins at primary school at the same school she attended. Hazel goes to work, opening the shop, doing the banking, making sure the restaurant has adequate supplies for the day. There are strict divisions to her day: there are the breakfast regulars, the 10 o’clock housewives who come for cake and tea with friends before going shopping, the lunch time crowd of office workers, the mid-afternoon pensioners. Hazel phones Jasmine in the afternoon, her domestic worker picks the child up from school, gives her lunch, looks after her until Hazel leaves work, walking home.
It is all so far away so different from the life she led before.
At night she still dreams of Federico: they are revenge dreams in which he comes asking for forgiveness, in which she hurts him, he cries out in agony. She hates him now, a hate that remains deep and strong as the years go on. She is still bitter, hurt, raw. Relationships crumble in the face of her fear, her past. Years later she will say that she never met the right man, recalling the men who flitted in and out briefly. Yet Federico is a presence in Hazel and Jasmine’s lives.
Jasmine asks about Federico; she grows up hearing her mother talk bitterly of the man who fathered her. Her grandparents say very little, as though they are protecting her with a conspiracy of silence. But her mother talks, she is bitter, still angry and hurt after all these years. Jasmine grows up with the understanding that her father was a failure. A man who could not hold down a job, a man who had no guts and courage, a man who ran away when he hit adversity. A man with many talents who wasted them all. Jasmine learns that she must never give in to weakness or fear. To do so means being a coward, it means being compared to a father who remains in fragmented memory. It means not being able to escape the long octopus fingers of the man who sired you, and by siring you, gave you half of his genes, his faults, his large reservoir of failings and cowardliness. It means the cowardliness lurks inside like a carnivorous plant, ready to sprout and burst into life.

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