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Open Book

Short Stories

The Pushmi-Pullyu Equation

My visit to Los Angeles during the Paragon’s pregnancy coincided with her Gender Reveal Party. Gender Reveal Party? We have baby showers in South Africa, I told her. No one in my granny gang has ever mentioned a Gender Reveal Party. I’m sure it’s against the constitution. It sounds like -an American conspiracy. Her gynae was instructed to reveal the babies’ gender to some designated baker who pitched up with two lavish cakes, both adorned with storks. There was a call for silence among the yuppie guests as the Paragon seized the beribboned knife and sliced open Cake One – to reveal a pink interior.


 “A girl!” gasped the audience, on cue. The gasp turned to horror when Cake Two was as pink as the first.


“Oh shit!” howled the Paragon. “I wanted one of each!” – as if a waiter had delivered the wrong item from the menu. I’d dreamed of a houseful of babies but my ovaries refused to co-operate after Matthew. Now hers were churning out babies on demand – two at a time – and she was complaining? I wanted to spit in her champagne. I hate Americans. They bomb anyone who doesn’t agree with them. I’d like to have followed their example at the Gender Reveal Party.


 I didn’t expect my grandchildren to be American. I didn’t really expect them to be black either, despite their roots. I’d do anything to make them less American - an African shade of chocolate. Bourneville rather than Dairy Milk. I scour the shelves at Exclusive Books in search of a Bourneville story to unwrap each time I visit. I pounced on my most recent selection immediately, heading for the till as decisively as a Republican casting his vote for Donald Trump.


It’s a new illustrated edition of an old classic. The Story of Doctor Doolittle. I’m surprised it’s never joined Enid Blyton and her gollywogs on the banned list. The author tosses out a handful of comments about white superiority when the doctor pays his first visit to Africa, but maybe the ANC didn’t pick that up. I was delighted to become reacquainted with all the characters that I loved as a child. Gub-Gub the pig. Dab-Dab the duck. Chee-Chee the monkey. And of course, my personal favourite – the Pushmi-Pullyu. I love the brightly-coloured illustration of the unicorn with a head on either side of its body. Even as a child, I identified with its predicament. Whenever it moves, both heads want to go in different directions. I’m faced with an identical dilemma at the moment.


 Matthew wants me to emigrate.


 “We’re worried about you Mom, now that you’re living on your own,” he Skyped persuasively. “I know you so well. You leave the keys in the door and forget to switch on the alarm. Don’t you ever read a newspaper? Cape Town’s one of the crime capitals of the world.”


“I’ve got the dogs,” I protested. Feebly, as anyone who has met my dogs will know.


“Dogs?” sneered Matthew derisively. “You make them sound like Rottweilers. They’re Dachshunds, for god’s sake. They couldn’t tell the difference between an axe murderer and Father Christmas!”


The dogs were a post-divorce acquisition. I was lonely when Duncan moved out. I felt even lonelier when he moved in with the blond golfer. Impulsiveness is second only to indecisiveness on my list of flaws. I didn’t think in the long term when I saw the dogs looking wistful in an advert. I soon learned that leap and bound are the only verbs in their vocabulary. Apart from yap, that is. Their yapping is so annoying that I’m tempted to put them both in an envelope and post them to my daughter-in-law.


“You really should consider emigration,” she advised me, looming supportively on the screen behind Matthew. “Zuma is turning South Africa into another African basket case. And you’re not getting any younger…”


I want to throw something at the screen. I resent the kindly tone she adopts whenever she speaks to me – as if I’m disabled. I’m tempted to remind her that I’m a qualified doctor, but I haven’t practiced since Matthew was born so everyone’s forgotten that.


 “I can’t abandon the dogs!” I protested. “They trust me!”


 I’m surprised she didn’t suggest approaching the local vet for a lethal injection. I wish I could give HER a lethal injection but euthanasia is probably illegal in California. America may be the leader of the free world but they’re a conservative bunch. Half of them still support the death penalty. Gay marriage is probably outlawed, even in San Francisco. I hope no one tells the flower children.


 I wish Matthew had married a flower child but my daughter-in-law is more like Olivia Pope. She’s a high-flier – and as much of a fixer as Olivia, in her way. She certainly fixed Matthew’s problem. It’s useful to marry an American if you happen to be travelling on a South African visa; promotion’s easier once you have a Green Card in your pocket.  She seems to get promoted all the time herself – but somehow, she still finds time to be an exemplary mother.  She potty-trained them virtually overnight. She always reads them a bed-time story, even after concluding a million-dollar deal at the office. That’s why I call her the Paragon. She’s perfect.


 I’m terrified of her.


 The only thing she can’t fix is me. She’s written me off as a hopeless case. She’d like to swat me like an alien fly. She has a point. I am an alien. I don’t belong in LA - but nothing does. Everything is from somewhere else. Huge Australian palm trees. Gigantic Egyptian-Moorish buildings. Spanish colonial housing estates. She owns a Beverley Hills mansion. No garden. A few pots of oleanders on the terrace. I hate the scent of oleanders, with their sinister white flowers, their leaves barbed and threatening. Even the flowers are poisonous in LA. It’s not the sort of place where a Pushmi-Pullyu might hang out.


The Paragon showed zero interest in the Pushmi-Pullyu and his gang when I started reading this year’s story to the twins at bedtime. I’m not surprised. She has nothing in common with a Pushmi-Pullyu. Indecision is a foreign concept to her. She’s always known exactly where she’s going. Straight to the top. I didn’t think she’d have time to deliver a grandchild as she climbed the corporate ladder but her maternal clock started ticking when she hit forty. Naturally, she fell pregnant straight away. I struggled for years before Matthew’s miraculous arrival but the Paragon’s perfection seems to cover gynaecological issues as well. I was beside myself with glee when I heard that she was having twins. I gloated in secret that they would be her downfall. She’d finally have to reveal herself as human.


 No one copes with twins.


 Ah ha! I thought smugly to myself. At last you’re going to learn what it means to flounder!  It wouldn’t be long before she was on the phone, begging me to fly over to dispense advice. I’d feel like Florence Nightingale when I landed at the airport. Or at least like Mary Poppins…


But she didn’t need me. LA is awash with domestic helpers streaming in from Mexico. The Paragon employed one on a live-in basis so that she could go straight back to work. I was almost as scared of the Mexican as I was of the Paragon. She looked as if she might be the sister of Al Capone. I sound as paranoid as Trump.


Initially, I was even scared of the twins. Matthew was over forty by the time they were born – and everything’s different, four decades down the line. I knew the Mexican had her eye on me when I tried to change a nappy. I wasn’t entirely sure which side was the front. But they were a breeze compared to fastening the car seats or unfolding the push-chair - especially with the Mexican lurking in the background


At least I didn’t have to keep an eye out for the Paragon who went straight back to work. I felt ashamed that I hadn’t done the same - but I had six miscarriages before Matthew was born. I fell apart a little more each time. Matthew spent his first two months in an incubator with tubes extending in every direction. I couldn’t let him out of my sight. I evolved into the most full-time mom on the planet. The tuck-shop would have folded without my contribution - not to mention the Cubs and the PTA. I struggled to fill the hours when he was at school. I baked batches of cookies, knitted jerseys, tended cabbage in my vegetable patch like a medieval peasant.


 I was the only one who was surprised when my husband of thirty-three years left me for a Cape Town clone of Olivia Pope. A Milky Bar version, in his case. The Paragon has more in common with her than she does with me. I wracked my brains for a way to upgrade my status.


I spotted a gap when I looked around the kitchen. It was fitted out with every conceivable appliance but none of them had ever been used. Americans don’t cook. They eat out in malls or they order takeouts. Cooking was one area where I was certain a medieval peasant would outshine a Paragon. I decided on oxtail because I could make it on the stove - I couldn’t decipher the settings on the microwave. It proved quite a challenge to track down an LA butcher who knew what oxtail was. I felt like one of Macbeth’s witches, busy over a Le Creuset cauldron, tossing in herbs and the freshest version of vegetables I could find. Market gardening isn’t big in LA.


The Mexican peered suspiciously into the pot. “This is African?” she enquired dubiously. “Lots of bones…” I should have thrown her into the pot beside the oxtail.


 “That was tasty!” said the Paragon kindly, when she scooped up the last of the gravy from her empty plate. Tasty? My oxtail is succulent. Moist. Decadently tender. I would have accepted gob-smacking seeing that she’s American – but tasty? She could have been describing a packet of peanuts.


“Pity about all the washing up!” she continued, eyeing the kitchen. “That’s the problem with eating at home…”  I slugged back another glass of Californian red and escaped to read the next chapter of Dr Doolittle to the twins before they went to bed. By the time I switched off their light, the wretched woman had miraculously restored the kitchen to its normal pristine state. The dishwasher was humming. She was busy hoovering the floor.


She belonged in the cauldron alongside the Mexican.


 I overheard them talking when I suggested taking the twins to the pantomime. “But she’ll never find the theatre!” sighed the Paragon. “She’ll take the wrong feed-off and they’ll all end up in San Diego!” They came up with a compromise. They bought a ticket for the Mexican so that she could give me directions. She sat in the back seat between the twins and they chattered away in Spanish the whole way to the theatre.


 I gave up on excursions too.


Resourcefully, I introduced the Pushmi-Pullyu game into my repertoire. I tied them together with the cord from my dressing gown. “Now you’re the Pushmi and you’re the Pullyu,” I explained. “You each want to go in different directions. Let’s see who wins!” They loved this game!


 “Pushmi!” yelled one, shoving her twin as hard as she could.


 “Pullyu!” she shrieked, yanking her in the opposite direction. There were a few moments of hilarity before it ended in a bloodbath. One of them went flying into the wall and started bleeding profusely from a cut on the head. The Mexican emerged as if by magic, armed with gauze and antiseptic. How big a dent it would make in my supply of American dollars if I bribed her not to tell their mother?


My situation worsened when the twins started school. The hours inched by, with neither friends nor dogs to talk to. The Mexican was always busy cleaning the spotless house so I drove off to one of the multiple malls to watch a movie, virtually every morning. This was Hollywood, after all. I was on first name terms with both the cashier and the popcorn lady. Until the Dachshund Incident, that is.


I was driving out of the basement parking when a woman walked past with a Dachshund on a lead. Dogs are as sparse as fresh vegetables in LA. Oh my god, it’s a Dachshund, I thought excitedly. Before driving into the wall. The axle snapped like a twig.


Unfortunately, I wasn’t going fast enough to die on impact.


How could I keep this a secret from the Paragon? Could I find a panel-beater to pound the bumper into shape before she got home? Could I sneak it into the garage and point a finger at the Mexican?  I phoned everyone I could think of. The AA. Honda. The police. And, eventually, the Paragon. I would rather have phoned a man-eating shark but I was out of options.


She was kinder than Mother Theresa when she heard my confession. Shortly afterwards, a truck arrived to collect the car. Followed by an Uber to collect me. Even the Mexican started to treat me kindly after the Dachshund Incident. I felt like the village idiot. I was hard-put not to break into a gallop when they called the flight back to Cape Town. No one can understand why I’m still considering emigration.


I can see Table Mountain from my bedroom window, fringed with cloud, tinted in shades of pink by the slow-rising winter sunshine; the summer sky the most emphatic blue on the planet. And what about my friends? My dogs? How could I consider leaving a city as beautiful as Cape Town for somewhere as brash as LA?


 Anyone in the granny gang will understand. Every single one of them would swear under oath that their grandchildren are the most beautiful – but mine really are. I’ve been addicted to them from the moment I counted all their tiny, perfect toes and fingers. I’m enchanted by their creamy chocolate faces, their long–lashed brown eyes, their beaded braids. They grow so much in between my visits. I miss all the milestones. And they don’t remember me when I arrive. I’m jealous when I watch them run to meet the Paragon’s mother who lives just down the road.


I forced myself to see that LA has a magic of its own. The buildings shimmer like a fantasy from the Arabian nights when the hot Santa Ana blows in from the desert. A maze of seaside piers with restaurants. Platters of crabs and prawns and mussels. Chapels, synagogues and Buddhist temples, all jumbled up together. Gay bars, blaring jukebox music. Anything goes, in LA. The smog makes the sunsets spectacular; they worm their way into your bloodstream with their redness, their veins of cloud…


It was no contest, in the end. I hacked off the Cape Town head of the Pushmi-Pullyu and told Matthew I was coming. I gritted my teeth and made my way to Home Affairs. They said a woman of my age could emigrate if 50% of her children lived in another country. Matthew is 100% of my children so they inked the rubber stamp and nodded. I averted my eyes from Table Mountain and put the house on the market. Everything was proceeding smoothly – until a Road to Damascus moment at a robot in Claremont.


 A genial face with a huge smile appeared at my window. A very black face. A Bourneville face. Togged out in a faded Springbok jersey. Green and gold. There was rugby at Newlands on Saturday so he was peddling South African flags. An old woman thrust a copy of the Big Issue into my face. Her face was Dairy Milk but she didn’t remind me of the Paragon because her front teeth were missing. A Milky Bar driver hooted impatiently behind me.


Not much of a epiphany – but it could never be replicated in LA.  


 I was there when Matthew got his citizenship. There were about fifty people at the ceremony and not a single one was Bourneville. Very few Milky Bars. Is there an Asian shade of chocolate? They all swore allegiance and sang The Star-Spangled Banner. Not N’kosi Sikele. There’s only one official language; the flag only three colours.


 It’s American. And I’m African.


I don’t mention my Bourneville soul when I explain why I crumpled up the emigration forms and threw them in the dust-bin. Chocolate color-coding is racist. Patronizing. Even the DA would shy away from chocolate terminology – but I know what I mean, what Tutu meant when he introduced a rainbow into the national vocabulary. The Arch isn’t the only one with roots deep-planted in this country. Mine stretch far beyond my Cape Town garden; they finger the Karoo with its flat-topped hills and starry nights, the rolling greenscape of Kwa-Zulu…


This is where I belong. I can’t be transplanted. Not even for the twins.


 I told Matthew that I’d changed my mind. I nearly changed it again when I opened an email and found the invitation to the end-of-term concert at the twins’ school. There was a photo of them dressed up as Easter rabbits.  How could I miss their stage debut? Had I made the right decision?


I’ll never be completely sure. The Pushmi-Pullyu equation is impossible to balance.

Weighting In Line

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

I’m alone when it starts.

If they made a movie of my life so far, there would be a drum-roll. Or the lights would dim – some version of a hint that something is about to happen. But there’s nothing. I don’t register that I should be paying attention. The setting adds to my nonchalance because I’m in my bedroom. Nothing could be more familiar. I’m sitting at my dressing table, brushing my hair.

I have beautiful hair. That sounds vain but as it’s my singular attribute in the beauty stakes, I’m allowed to revel in it. It was looking particularly good that day because I’d forked out a fortune at the hairdresser for a colour rinse. My hair is thick and glossy but it’s never been enough to lure a boyfriend into my web. An upgrade might improve my chances? A colour rinse seems less of a hassle than a diet.
The songs all say that gentlemen prefer blondes so it was an easy choice. I pointed to summer blonde on the chart and told him to go ahead – I’m not built for the beach so I can’t rely on the sun to add some natural highlights. Barbara Cartland would have come up with something like a sun-kissed torrent if she’d had to describe the finished product. I can’t stop brushing it. Touching it.


And then I stop. Like pressing pause on the remote. I spot a mousey remnant of my natural colour as I run my fingers through the fairy-tale. A single hair. It looks so dark. Out of place. A cloud in the sun-kissed torrent. OMG I think, dropping the brush in panic. My fingers instinctively reach up to the offending hair. Tighten around it. Tug. The entire hair comes out – right down to the root.
I stare at it in my fingers. Move my thumb across the root, exploring the bulb; a tiny, innocuous swelling. I can’t explain why I lift it to my mouth, run it lightly across my lip. It doesn’t feel sensuous. Not in any way erotic. No tremors down my spine but I feel something. Not pleasure. Not pain. But something.


The moment passes and I brush the strand carelessly to the floor. I can’t explain why I did it again. How it became a habit. Pulling is easier to start than to stop when TTM takes root. Acronyms are the ABC of the texting generation but not many will know what that stands for.

I hate the word, not only because I know the meaning. I hate it because it ends in mania. That feels like a judgement. No-one feels guilty if they have rheumatoid arthritis. Or cancer. They’re just unlucky. Everyone feels sorry for them. No-one points or sniggers if chemo makes your hair fall out. It’s entirely different if you pull it out yourself. That makes you as mad as a hatter. Even in your own eyes.
Mania isn’t the only suffix that’s a regular routine for me. Phobia crops up every single day. My default phobia is nomophobia – that’s a lot of letters for an acronym but it’s still a short cut. No-Mobile-Phone-Phobia. A large percentage of people on the planet suffer from that – they just don’t know they have it. They don’t know it’s a medical condition. It’s lucky I have it. Without Google, I’d have been wondering for years why I was pulling. Thinking I was the only one. Hiding my secret…

For me, phobia and mania are linked – both are finger-related. When my fingers aren’t pulling, they’re on a keyboard. I only registered that I was pulling when I saw the pile of hair on the keyboard. Not the piano. The computer. I’m a data analyst so I sit in front of a computer every single day. Even at night. Over the weekend. If I’m not playing with figures, I’m on google. Google is my guru. I can’t survive for half an hour without access to instant answers. And when I google, I use my phone rather than my lap-top. It’s one of the things I always do. I can’t stop myself. FRBR comes up on most sites about TTM. Body Focused Repetitive Behavior. That’s embedded in my DNA, side by side with acronyms.

Google’s to blame for nomophobia, in my case. It’s the reason I need my phone. I seldom use it for phone calls. Who would I phone? I don’t spend hours confiding in my best friend because I’ve never had one. I prefer Whatsapp to conversation. I need to vet what I say before I send it. I have 342 friends but most of them don’t live in Cape Town.

I don’t know why I pull my hair out. Google says it’s not genetic so I can’t blame my parents. Anthea and Andrew. They named me Zoe so we’ve always been at least an alphabet apart. I hardly know them, now the Atlantic Ocean in the way. They packed their right-wing bags and headed for the airport once Zuma was elected. Fortunately, political opinions aren’t genetic. TTM’s not genetic either but Google tells me that addiction is – recent stats claim 50% – 60% of addictive behavior is due to genetic predisposition. I seldom see my parents now they have their Green Cards but Anthea made an unwitting contribution to my situation during one her rare visits. Without her, I might not have googled quite so soon. You should never write off your mother completely.

‘I snapped this up for you on a Walmart sale!’ she enthused as she unpacked her luggage. The bargain she unwrapped was a duvet set. Blue and white stripes with navy pillow-cases. She’d thrown in a navy sheet as well.
‘I don’t like blue,’ I said in half-hearted protest. ‘I don’t like any shade of blue. You’re going to turn me into a depressive if I have to sleep in a dark blue bed.’
‘You can’t return sale goods!’ she insisted dogmatically. ‘And it’s very good quality!’ It was easier to sleep in a blue bedroom than to argue so I gave my maid the old duvet and settled my head on the crisp new pillow case.

It’s easy to see the strands of hair on my pillow when I get out of bed the next day. They’re part of a sun-kissed torrent, after all. They stand out against the navy background. I think nothing of it. It doesn’t cross my mind that I might have pulled them out. I head off to work and carry on with life as usual. I don’t give it another thought, even though there are more on the pillow the next morning. And the next. And the next. Why would I give them a second thought? Hair comes out all the time. Plumbers owe their livelihood to unblocking showers.
A couple of months have passed before one of my non-best-friends steps into my office and stands beside my desk with some memo or other.
‘God Zoe!’ she says. ‘Look at your keyboard!’
I glance down. Do a double take. There are more than two hairs on the keyboard. Not yet a clump but not a stray strand either. Almost a sun-kissed tress, if I’m honest.
‘Good grief!’ I say ineffectually. ‘Must be the moulting season!’ I top off this inanity with a mindless giggle. I sound like Zuma. I sweep the evidence onto the floor. Out of sight. Grab the memo out of her hand and deflect her attention.


But not my own.

I stare at the keyboard when she leaves the office. How had those hairs got there? So many of them? Was my hair falling out? I’m busy with an important contract so I’d hardly blinked for the past two hours, my fingers flying across the keyboard. Entering data. Cross-checking. Typing in conclusions. I’m very good at my job so I have all the relevant data at my fingertips.
At my fingertips? What had my fingers had been up to while I processed the data?


I stare at the pile of hair on the floor beside my desk. Was it a pile? It looked like the floor at the hairdresser when I drop in for a trim. But where are the scissors? I stretch a finger down in a tentative way. A couple of fingers. Enough to pick up some of the hairs. I lay them in a row on the desk. I have a good eye for detail. My meticulous approach is legendary in the firm. These hairs don’t look quite like the hairs on the hair dresser’s floor. Can I pin-point a difference?

The ones at the hairdresser are snippets. Shorter. Different lengths. The hairs lined up on my desk are all long. The sun-kissed torrent reaches my shoulders. That’s how long these hairs are. And each one has a root. Did I pull them out? Could I have pulled them out? Why would I do that? A whole pile? Why didn’t it hurt? Why isn’t my scalp bleeding? My fingers reach instinctively for the phone. I don’t consciously give them that instruction – it’s what I always do when I need to know an answer. I key in hair-pulling. Stare at the screen.

So many sites. Multiple sites about a word I’d never heard before. So much information on a secret I didn’t know I was keeping.

I panic. Log out. Bury my head in data. I forbid my fingers to go anywhere near my phone until my head is safely back on the navy pillowcase that night. I feel almost giddy as I skim my way through the sites that come up on my screen. One directs me to Amazon. There’s a book about it. Thank god for Kindle- I don’t have to wait until Exclusive Books opens its doors at nine the next day- the book arrives in about one second. I switch off the bedroom light before I start reading. That’s ridiculous -I live alone – but it seems important that no-one sees what I’m reading.

It’s a compendium of anecdotes by hair pullers. Different ages. Different sexes. Different continents.

We’re everywhere.

I find it hard to move beyond the title. Doesn’t it Hurt? It wrenches my gut because it echoes one of the thoughts that crossed my mind during my keyboard epiphany. Why doesn’t it hurt? Where’s the blood? The cover shows a girl’s face. A pale face. Eyes shut. Framed by a cascade of hair. Dark hair. Not a sun-kissed torrent but a cascade, none-the-less. It’s not a photo. More of a cartoon. Perhaps TTM doesn’t apply to real people? Her hands are stretched out in front of her. As if she’s begging.

But her hands aren’t empty. They’re full of hair. Maybe she is begging? People with TTM beg all the time for it to stop.

I force myself to start reading. The opening sentence claims statistics show that 1 in 50 Americans have trichotillomania. 1 in 50! There are millions of Americans so that’s a lot of people! I open a random chapter. It freaks me out completely because the writer was so young when she started. Six years old. She tried to ignore the messages from her eyelids. Pull they said. Pull. You’ll feel better if you pull. Her fingers found their way to her lashes. She pulled. One came out in her fingers. She did feel better so she did it again. And again. And again. Until they were all were gone.

An eyelash? I’m horrified. An eyelash? All her eyelashes? I recoil at the thought. Were there any eyelashes on the navy pillowcase? My eyelashes aren’t as luxurious as my hair so maybe I didn’t notice?

Her mother eventually noticed – and so she smacked her. Bent her over the bed and smacked her bottom. Her bottom was only six years old. So were each of her fingers. None of them would listen when she told them to stop. Her mother told her friends. In front of the child. When it didn’t stop, she sent a letter to the teacher. The child didn’t want to tell the teacher. She was ashamed so she crumpled up the letter. She was only six years old so she wasn’t cunning enough to destroy the evidence. She left the crumpled letter in her satchel. Her mother found it when she sidled home. More smacking. She learned how to hide her secret as she got older but it’s not much of a secret when bald patches start to appear.

I want to switch off my Kindle but my fingers won’t listen. I plough through the whole book that night. It’s not a very long book but my pillowcase is covered with hair by the time I reach the end.

I stuff my pillowcase into the washing machine. I have a perfect attendance record at work but I phone in sick, my thoughts too jumbled to deal with data. I peer into the mirror. No baldness. Am I missing something? I contort myself into a knot to examine the back of my head. Have the non-best friends already noticed? Is there sniggering I haven’t spotted? Pointing? Why would I pull out my hair? The anecdotes all mention stress. Am I stressed? Haven’t I noticed that either? Why would I be stressed?

I sit on my hands. I don’t trust them.

Maybe I’m lonely? I’ve always been a loner so that’s nothing new. I’ve never had a boyfriend. Or a close friend. I’m closer to my cat than anyone human. OMG. What if I target my cat? What if I start pulling out clumps of fur when she cuddles on my pillow every night? I feel like a psychopath. If I made an appointment with a shrink, I’d describe myself as self-sufficient rather than maladjusted. You can’t write off someone who gets promoted as often as I do. Would they promote a misfit? Is being in charge is too much for me to handle?
I can’t settle, even in my favourite chair. My nightie feels tight. Maybe I’m fat? Surely I’m not too fat to have a boyfriend? Fatter girls than me walk past me holding hands with someone. My boobs look like udders in a bikini. I remember rushing out of the change-room, in case an assistant barged in to offer her advice. But I never go to the beach so why would that worry me now?

It might have worried me a bit when I was younger. I remember being jealous of an anorexic girl in my class. She looked like a skeleton. All those lovely bones. I prayed she’d infect me but I’m too greedy for anorexia. Google has PAGES on anorexia but basically you aren’t going to get there unless you stop eating. I’m too hungry to do that. Second-helpings are part of my DNA. Bulimia sounded a better option. I showed real flair, shoveling down anything that crossed my path. But the key to bulimia is the toilet visits. According to Google, that’s a ground rule for successful bulimia. I could never make myself vomit, no matter how far I stuck my fingers down my throat. I never progressed further than a few bouts of dry retching. The binge ingredients wouldn’t budge. They hung around on my hips. On my bottom. On my belly. My fingers were useless at being stuck down my throat.

Why are they so skillful when it comes to pulling out my hair?

I return to Doesn’t it Hurt? Is it my new bible? Not that I had an old one. Maybe that’s what I need? Can I drum up a different epiphany? There’s a whole squad of Christians at the office. Lots of Muslims. Maybe I should sidle over and claim to have found Jesus? I don’t have a clue who the Muslims would find. Maybe Allah? I’d rather find a boyfriend. I’ve eavesdropped on a gang of non-best friends giggling about their conquests on Tinder but I don’t think I can go there, despite my keyboard skills. What if the pulling gets worse? No-one wants a bald girlfriend.

The anagram-addicted section of my DNA registers TLC. Tender Loving Care sounds like something anyone in the TTM gang would need but it translates to something entirely different in this context. The Trichotillomania Learning Centre. It comes over as the ultimate solution for hair-pullers. Virtually every one of the writers finds salvation when they log onto online counselling. Half of them become TLC disciples, delivering speeches all over various continents. Getting us together. Dishing out advice. Buy a stress ball. Tape your fingers. Use organic shampoo. Keep a journal. Etcetera, Etcetera. Most of them swear by CBT. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. They all sign up – for a fee, of course. In American dollars. They find conferences to attend but no-one mentions one in Cape Town. Not that I’d go. What if I see someone I know? I’m firmly in the closet when it comes to pulling out my hair.

I log into TLC only when the first bald patch appears.

I’m pulling my hair out in fistfuls by then. Awake at 2.00am, my scalp throbbing. I can’t stop my fingers. I’m desperate to feel the follicle dislodge from my scalp, to feel the root against my lips. I’m disgusted when I part them to let my teeth bite down. I’m disgusted. I’m disgusting. But that doesn’t stop me. I drown in shame when a hair-free patch beside my ear catches my increasingly vigilant eye. I panic. Try to hide it. Do I dare to go to work? What if it’s windy? What if I don’t notice? What if they do?

I leave the office early. Computers are portable – but people aren’t. They need to ask me questions, now that I’m the one in charge. They start to raise their eyebrows as my work-from-home routine increases. I still have my own eyebrows at that stage but I’m neurotic that my fingers will attack them next.

I need help.

Someone. Somewhere. Anyone. Anywhere. I can’t survive this on my own. But how do I keep it secret?
I’m a computer hot-shot so I know all about the dangers of a paper trail. I register a new address. No names involved. Anonymous. Mania is not a word that anyone would associate with Zoe – I’m the least manic person at the office. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t dance on the table at the office party. I don’t even GO to the office party. I’m not manic. On the surface anyway. I take a deep breath before I start typing.
I get an immediate response. It’s a test. They need to assess the level of my pulling tactics. It’s anonymous. No names required. And it’s free. I might as well try it. The questions are multiple choice. Frequency of urges. Intensity. Effects. I spend a long time deciding on my answers before I press Send. Another immediate response. The severity of my case is rated 70%.
That sounds bad. Very bad.

The response is from someone named Steve and he’s based in Chicago. One of the millions of Americans. He’s very persuasive about online therapy. Maybe he’s not one of the millions. Maybe he’s just a salesman? I’m suspicious but I don’t press delete immediately. 70% is not a score I can shrug off. I read every word of Steve’s pitch. It covers inter-connected thoughts. Feelings. Behavior. Negativity. Not good enough. Disgusting.

I feel as if he’s describing me.

He moves onto solutions. Reflection. Challenge. Habit Reversal. He mentions worksheets. Personal therapists. It sounds like a lot of exposure. More than multiple choice. He mentions clomipramine. Maybe I can just swallow a pill? But if they work, why aren’t the millions of Americans all swallowing them? I somehow know it’s going to be harder than swallowing a pill.
I need advice. I can’t possibly ask someone at work. The office is staffed with non-best friends. I can’t tell one of them. Imagine the gossip! They’re already gossiping about my work-from-home routine. Asking me why. I can’t brush them off forever. Especially if all my hair falls out. What if I’m bald? Maybe I’ll tell them I have cancer? It would be easier to have cancer. I wish it was cancer. I could blame chemo for the bald patch. With TTM, I can only blame myself.

I decide to register. My promotions mean that money’s not an issue. Even in American dollars. I’m anxious when I key in the credit card details. I don’t want to blow my cover but what are my choices? Again, an immediate response. It must be automated. No problem with time zones. It delivers a list of emails. A long list. Not as many as a million but I suppose we haven’t all heard of TLC. Or we’re put off by the dollars. Maybe the ones who are rated at 30% don’t feel it’s necessary to go any further?

But my result was 70%. I need to go further.

I scroll down the list. I’m attracted to the ones who don’t use their real names. Maybe they feel as furtive as I do? I like the sound of Zephyr and Zoe. Maybe we have more than the alphabet in common? Maybe Zephyr will be easier to talk to then Anthea and Andrew? I like the sound of her when I open her email. I’m sure she’s a girl. What if she’s a boy? I’ll have nothing in common with a boy.

Zephyr describes herself as a creature of habit. She always eats the same food. Wears the same colour. She sits on the same spot on the couch every night. I like that. I’m reading her email in my favourite chair. It feels as if we’ve bonded. Order and punctuality are the cornerstones of my life. She includes a paragraph that makes me feel better. She’s rational about her pulling. Puts in perspective. She says some people overeat. Some drink too much. Others do drugs. Some are compulsive joggers. Some gamble. There are multiple activities that people feel compelled to do every single day. Zephyr pulls out handfuls of hair.

Me too.

That’s all I say when I type my reply. Press Send.
Noma-phobia is rampant as I wait for a reply. I check my phone frenetically. Even though I know she might live in Los Angeles. Google says there’s a 10-hour time difference. Zephyr’s probably sound asleep but I’m desperate for a response. I’ve sent an SOS. Will she register the urgency in the two words I mailed?

Me too. What could be more urgent than that?

But Zephyr never replies.

Not after ten hours. Not even after twenty. I force myself to look at the list again. This time I close my eyes and jab at the screen with a pencil. It lands on Sounds like another ten-hour delay. But maybe she lives on the east coast? Maybe she’s from New York? And I can be sure she’s a girl because her name is Carole. And because her email is all about penciling in her eyebrows. Applying false lashes. Hoping it’s just a fleeting problem that will eventually go away.

That’s exactly what I’m hoping so I write Me too. Again. Press Send. Again.

But this time I get a reply! We start up a correspondence. Share pulling experiences. Times. Tactics. I’m thrilled! This feels like progress! It feels like friendship! My confidence inches up. One day, Carole doesn’t get back to me as promptly as usual so I contact another name on the list! A reply from the new one is waiting when I check my phone at lunch time! And there’s also one from Carole!
My life takes on a new dimension. The evenings start to fly by. I press Cut. Copy. Send. They don’t all reply but lots of them do. It’s reassuring to read them voice the same reservations about themselves as I feel about myself. I identify with the one who checks her garbage to see how much hair she’s thrown out that day. I cringe in sympathy with someone who describes how the boys at school pull off her wig, laugh at her baldness as they throw it over her helpless head.

I’m still pulling two years later but by then I have 342 friends in my contact list.

I’m riveted when one of them asks if I live in Cape Town! I’d described my horror the day before. I told them there was a strong South Easter; I’d spent hours hiding the patches before I went to work. The South Easter destroyed my disguise the minute I stepped out of my car. Everyone could see. I was so flustered that I dropped my keys. I didn’t know what to do with my hands. Should I cover up the patches? Should I look for my keys? The girl who emailed me knew all about South Easters because she lives in Table View. Table View has the strongest South Easters in Cape Town.

Her name is Jennifer – she wants to meet me for coffee!
I’m terrified. Wracked with indecision. Do I want to face a real person? Someone who knows? There’s a safety net on email. I’ve shied away from people who ask to be a Face Book friend. I don’t have a Face Book account, simply because of the face aspect. My face is a secret. So is my hand-writing. Anything that would show who I really am.
But I’m tempted. There’s something so normal about a coffee date. The non-best friends are always nipping out for a coffee. Together. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a coffee? It’s just coffee, I explain to myself. I’m not going to take my clothes off. I can keep my hat on. And it’s in Table View. I live in Newlands. Table View is on a different planet, if you live in Cape Town. No-one at the office lives in Table View. No-one will see me.

‘Great!’ I say when I write back. ‘Anywhere in Table View is fine for me! How about after work on Tuesday?’ There’s even less likelihood I’ll see anyone after work. The non-best friends are rushing home to bath their babies.

She suggests The News Café because it’s close to her office. I don’t like the look of it when I Google. Too open and sophisticated for an undercover meeting? But the address is 1Beach Boulevard so it should be easy to find- I’ve never actually been to Table View. Why would I go there? Why would anyone go there, I wonder, as I drive past rows of modern houses. So different from shady Newlands.
But it feels like an adventure! It IS an adventure! Maybe Jennifer and I will hit it off? Maybe she’s best friend material? Maybe I am? I feel almost grateful to my bald patch for putting us in contact. What could happen?
Maybe the road to Table View will become more familiar after tonight?

I’m early.

I slide into the parking slot selected during my daylight survey of the prospective hunting ground. My quarry will be clearly visible when he walks up to the designated wine-bar. I have contingency plans to fade into the darkness if he doesn’t look as appealing as he did in his photograph. Thank God I had the foresight not to include one of myself. He won’t know who I am, even if he catches a glimpse of me lurking in the shadows. I couldn’t bear it if he was the one to turn away in disappointment. I look at my watch. Still ten minutes until the appointed hour. It seems like an eternity. I don’t know whether to sue Woolworths or Blogdate for reducing me to this state of teenage angst.

I fidget. It’s hot in the car. Perhaps I should sue summer, along with Woolworths and Blogdate. It was summer’s bare-legged, flimsy expectations which triggered my current crisis.  I’d broken three zips trying to force my way into last year’s wardrobe. I had no option but to browse through Woolworth’s summer range.

I suppose it’s unrealistic to petition for a block-out ban on mirrors in changing booths but surely it would make sound marketing sense to at least dim the lights? My bedroom mirror is in a shady corner. I apply my make-up virtually in the dark. I sometimes feel quite trendy when I leave home but my confidence levels drop substantially once I reach the neon lights in Woolworths. Someone should explain to the marketing manager that sales would rise if customers were shielded from direct confrontation with their defects. Surely some enterprising engineer could construct a kinder mirror?

I remember sifting morosely through a pile of discarded options on the floor, brooding on which outfit looked the least awful. I still flinch when I recall the moment that I caught a glimpse of what I look like from the back. The user-friendly mirror in my bedroom doesn’t offer a backside panorama so this proved quite a shock. When did my bum reach those dimensions? Were those actually folds of flesh in the stomach arena? When did ripple become a thigh-related verb?

No wonder Gary rode off into the sunset. Even I can see his point.

I haven’t been short of sympathy over his defection. There’s mass sympathy from book club. If you consider the collected mass of book club, that’s quite a lot of sympathy. None of them is young and slender. They can all imagine similar defections by spouses of their own. The bridge ladies are equally outraged. They forgive me if I forget what convention we’re playing. Stayman, Transfers and Keycard Blackwood pale into insignificance in the light of Gary’s transgressions. My friends insist that I deserve more. And Gary deserves a good deal less.Gary is bald and belly-prone. Unfortunately, he’s also the CEO. He drives a Porsche and his credit card never bounces. He can finance trips to Mauritius and candle-lit dinners at the Mount Nelson. Who needs hair in those circumstances? A belly blurs in a five-star setting.

I‘ve become a professional lounger since my marriage broke up. It sometimes seems the only way to spend the day. I haul myself from the bed and make my way to the kitchen for yet another slice of carrot cake. I’m addicted to carrot cake. The lady at the home-bake puts one in a box the minute she sees me. I try to explain my excessive carrot consumption in terms of guests and tea parties but I think she knows the truth. I knew the truth myself when I slunk out of Woolies that day.

‘I’ve got to do something!’ I wailed to the first of the Concerned Callers who checked in to see if I’d managed to get myself out of bed. To my alarm, she agreed. I hoped she’d say something reassuring and send me back to lounge in comfort on my bed. She suggested a week’s retreat on a health farm. ‘Get yourself back in shape,’ she told me briskly, producing the number from her handbag like a magician. I bet the whole team of Concerned Callers could produce it on demand. They’d just been waiting for me to give them an opening. I packed my bags with some reluctance. I didn’t have the courage to conceal an entire carrot cake at the bottom of my suitcase but I sneaked in a Kit Kat. One can’t confront the lettuce regime entirely unarmed.

I must concede that the setting was very picturesque, nestled on a hillside which provided a variety of bracing uphill walks. I could immediately identify two distinct groups of inmates at the orientation session. One was focused on maintaining the perfection that had already been achieved. All members of this group were lithe and tanned with fully functional bodies. Their hair was sleek and high-lighted and they knew how to work all the machines in the gym. Changing booths held no fears for Group A inmates. I felt more at home with the losers in Group B. Many of us shared a cellulite crisis. We’d lost husbands, jobs and self esteem. We swallowed Prozac or fertility pills with one of the eight litres of water we had to drink each day. We looked bemused when we heard the sales pitch. ‘We are all integral thinkers,’ she told us. ‘We feel the need to bring ourselves fully into the experience of life. Expressing ourselves in mind, body, soul and spirit will bring us the personal growth we seek together.’ God knows what she was talking about. I was immediately certain I would fail the course   I hadn’t thought any further than cutting down on carrot cake.

My spirits sank still more when I answered my wake-up call the following morning. Sally Sunshine was at the door with my early morning beverage. That day it was Epsom salts. The next morning she pitched up with parsley tea. I soon realised there was no hope of cappuccino at a health farm. Lunch and supper did little to improve my spirits. Day one featured lettuce, cucumber and two almonds. There was also a carrot. I dreamed of the home-bake as I munched my way stoically through it. They replaced the almonds with dates and pumpkin seeds the following day. I felt positively faint when I presented myself at the gym.

I hated the gym. Time virtually ground to a halt on the treadmill. After what seemed like an eternity, I sneaked a glance at the clock. 31 seconds had passed. I couldn’t believe it. The machine was obviously malfunctioning. I gave it a furtive kick to hurry it along. This was a mistake. I lost my footing and fell off in a loud disruptive manner. The perfectionists in Group A ignored my plight completely but a couple of fellow losers hurried to my side and helped me to my feet. ‘I did that on my first day,’ confided one. ‘I was so bored I tried to read a book at the same time.’ I moved on to the bike but I struggled to control it. The pedals whizzed around as if I was Lance Armstrong on the home stretch at the Tour de France. I pressed the plus sign but then I couldn’t turn the pedals at all. I am not gym material. It was even more of a low point than the almonds and dates at supper.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. We slouched around in toweling robes all day and even Group A abandoned make-up and hair-dos. I managed to squeeze myself into a costume and showed some flair for water aerobics.  I positively purred during aromatherapy. I loved the head massage and gentle hands worked wonders with my feet and back. I lounged legitimately in my bedroom without the threat of a Concerned Caller on the horizon. The scale showed that lettuce and almonds were a winning combination. Seven kilograms were gone! An inspiration! They could hardly prise me off the scale. I felt as if I’d been promoted to Group A.

I was filled with purpose on release. I stuck religiously to my diet, determined to show Gary and his bloody bimbo a thing or two. At minus eleven kilograms, I was back in the market for men. One of my Concerned Callers suggested on-line dating.

‘I can’t do that!’ I cried. ‘What if I contact a pervert? Or a serial killer?’

‘Calm down,’ she reassured me. ‘You arrange a meeting in a public place. You can leave if you don’t like him…’

I logged into Blogdate. I spent several hours composing my sales pitch. Intelligent woman seeks interesting companion was my heading. I ticked all the boxes which made me sound the most interesting. There’s no need for complete honesty in a crisis. I had to summarize my charms in about thirty well chosen words. I decided not to mention the missing kilograms. They could be a delightful surprise when I met my quarry. I’m a well-read, well-travelled middle aged woman, given to eccentric calls at bridge. House work is not my forte. I hoped to sound bohemian. I still had reservations about peddling my wares on the internet but I was desperate for Gary to hear that I had found a lover.

Online dating turned out to be more fruitful than sipping an optimistic glass of a wine in a random wine-bar in the hopes that someone suitable might join me. The chances of that happening are zero for the middle aged. Trawlers at a pub are looking for firmer flesh than ours. But I was amazed at the range of possibilities that came up on my screen when I pressed the search button. There were some pub trawlers among them. My first hit called himself Cool Customer. Subtitled A hot prospect. Followed by at least seven exclamation marks. He claimed to be a raconteur of note with an interest in a feisty sensual partner. He admitted to a totally dysfunctional family and ticked at least eighteen different musical genres as his favourite. I deleted him when I got to his predilection for martial arts.]


But I liked the sound of the next one. Pinotage. Subtitled Unique to the Cape.  I liked his face and the touch of grey at his temples. He claimed to be a wine lover with a sophisticated sense of humour and isolated jazz as his musical favourite. I began to imagine us at the Green Dolphin on a smoky summer evening. He’s an interior designer for an international company and recently moved to Cape Town because it’s the most beautiful city in the world. My addiction to Cape Town rivals my love for carrot cake. I liked the sound of Pinotage even more when he responded my email.

You can learn a lot about a person in an email relationship. I found myself hovering around the computer. I logged in far more often than necessary. I could hardly wait to see if the new message was from Pinotage. We speedily progressed to first name terms. I deflected the possibility of meeting for as long as possible but I knew he’d stop e-mailing me if I didn’t agree. I spent at least an hour trying to choose an outfit which looked as if I just threw it on in a casual yet elegant manner.

And here I am.

And my God, it’s him! I recognize him as soon as he gets out of the car. Even the car is exciting. It’s some sort of low-slung Beemer. He’s taller than I expected, casually dressed in denims and a brand-name jacket. It looks like a healthy bank balance is also part of the package. We haven’t discussed anything as sordid as finance in our emails. Maybe he’s keeping the French villa as a delightful surprise. Like I’ve done with my vanished kilos. I run a brush through my hair and take a deep breath. I’m good enough I tell myself as I lock the door behind me and stride with confidence towards what could be my destiny.

‘May I buy you a glass of Pinotage?’ I smile enquiringly as I slide into the seat beside him at the bar. I register an approving smile as his eyes flicker over me.

‘You look as promising as your emails,’ he tells me. ‘You’ve been so evasive that I was beginning to think that you were a figment of my imagination!’

‘This is my first move into technology,’ I confess. ‘It seems as if I’m having beginner’s luck!’ I add flirtatiously. I haven’t said anything flirtatious for several decades. I feel flushed with success as he laughs appreciatively and orders a bottle of chilled white wine.

We clink our long stemmed glasses and the evening is officially in progress. I’m amazed that it’s so easy. We’ve covered the small talk already in our emails. It feels as if we’re old friends. The evening flies by in a morale-boosting until I introduce Camps Bay into the conversation. We’re discussing the various charms that Cape Town has to offer.

‘Camps Bay is one of my favourite places,’ I confide. ‘I always feel as if I’m in heart of the Europe when I sit at a pavement café with a glass of wine, surrounded by strangers with German accents. I try to force myself to get up early so I can watch the play of light across the sand when the sun comes up.’

‘We’re definitely kindred spirits,’ he nods approvingly, picking up the hand I’d carelessly left lying on the table. I’m aware of the texture of his tongue as he kisses my fingers slowly, one by one. ‘Those are two of the reasons why I bought my apartment in Camps Bay. The view of the beach is amazing. You must come and have a look. I’m a maestro when it comes to whipping up a sea-food salad,’ he adds suggestively.

I feel my stomach muscles clench in panic at the prospect. I visualize an up-market penthouse. No doubt it features an up-market bedroom. With a king-size bed…

I can’t go. I don’t want to take my clothes off. The missing kilograms aren’t enough to rewrite the script I’ve followed all my life. I was married to Gary for twenty years. He knew me in the days before droop and sag entered the physical equation. I’ll never be cast in Sex and the City. I’ve never had a one-night stand. I don’t think I’m brave enough to face the possibility that Pinotage won’t call once he realizes that I’m less casual and elegant than my outerwear suggests. I’m scared that I’ll start to need him; that he’ll reinforce the doubts that Gary sowed when he left me.

I decide to pre-empt him before he follows Gary into the sunset. I turn down the suggestion of a night-cap in the pent-house. The following day, I send a cowardly SMS claiming the return of an old relationship. The Concerned Callers gather like vultures, eager for details. We decide to adopt a feminist approach to my future. Why, we ask, must it include a man?  The Concerned Callers are interested in travel, books and movies. More importantly, none of them want to go to bed with me…

Ironically, it’s the internet that confirms my change of direction. I check out my emails for the fourth time that morning to see if Pinotage has perhaps sent an anguished plea for me to reconsider my decision.  But there’s only one new message. It’s a piece of spam entitled Fairy Tales, printed in a feminist shade of pink. Once upon a time, a girl asked a guy ‘Will you marry me?’ The guy said no and the girl lived happily ever after. She went shopping, dancing and drank martinis. She never had to cook or entertain his friends and she gobbled down slabs of chocolate without ever feeling guilty.

It’s a tired old joke. I think it’s been floating around in the ether since the day Al Gore invented the internet. It doesn’t deserve Road to Damascus status but at that moment, it seems like a coded message from my guardian angel. I add carrot cake to the list of the options offered and set out at once for the home-bake.

But I don’t delete my blog-site. Just in case I change my mind….    

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