Period has so many meanings: on one hand it is an American (USA) way of saying stop or a grammatical full stop that ends a sentence and on the other, “it’s a secret never to be told”. The Promise by Damon Galgut and the relentless news cycle we experience makes for an interesting reflection on the word.

The unremitting news cycle can increase the difficulties of living with Covid or any other physical/ mental health concern. The news cycle seems not to stop partly, because there are issues around the world, we need to engage with, but often the breaking news is not breaking news, it is just a repetition of what we have heard before or simply speculation. The way Covid was reported, particularly in the early days was a case in point. The news media kept reporting the number of cases and deaths but did not give us any perspectives such as survival rates. The figures, at the top of the headlines just kept getting bigger and bigger. No wonder people just want to just stop, pause and catch their breath. This is increasingly difficult to do, however because, for one, some organisations have kept the default setting on their computers so pop ups try to engage staff with various “interesting new” items, it takes ages to load, and the language is US!

One way, however, to stop is to focus on ones breathing or get absorbed in a good book. The Promise by Damon Galgut is absorbing, insightful and stimulating. It packs a lot in, has many layers and includes no wasted word.

The book starts:

“…. Amor knows it’s happened. She’s been in a tense, headachy mood all day, almost like she had a warning in a dream but can’t remember what it is. Some sign or image, just under the surface. Trouble down below. Fire underground.

But when the words are said to her aloud, she does not believe. … It’s a word, that’s all. … She’s been living here for the past seven months, waiting for what hasn’t happened to happen, … All she wants to do is lie down on her bed and fall asleep and never, never wake up. Like Ma? No, not like Ma, because Ma is not asleep.”

Later in the book, when she attends her Ma’s funeral the secret never to be told takes place.

“The truth is that my mother is dead, and she lies inside that box. As she thinks it, the solid world comes undone, starts to liquefy. She feels it slide. Clenches herself presses her thighs together. Make it stop.

… But Amor sinks back onto the bench, feeling suddenly faint. Leans first toward Anton, then sharply the other way, to her sister.” Her sister cannot help so sends a message to an aunt whose “last menstruation … is far in the past, … and these days it’s unpleasant to imagine such a thing is even possible. … She takes hold of Astrid by one elbow and whispers to her instead. Take her outside and look after her. We’ll deal with it later.”

… But where is Amor? Where is Astrid?

Anton turns in bewilderment, unsure whom to hand the spade on to.

They had to go somewhere, [his aunt} hisses. Give that thing to your uncle.

Where did they have to go? The question keeps bothering him, while the line of people goes slowly passed, each tossing their quota down into the hole. … Bit by bit the coffin disappears, … and the small crowd starts to disappear” and some start walking towards where, the eldest daughter is fearing “the questions that will be asked …. But her aunt, “at last has seen and understood, and makes sure she is there before any men arrive. Don’t worry, I will take care of it. She has a long-practiced mode of imparting confidence and instructions, …. And she steers her nieces towards her own car …”

“But where are Astrid and Amor? Anton {their brother} is still bewildered” and wonders why have people changed cars? …What could make two girls walk out of their mother’s funeral, just at the important moment?

The aunt drives them to a mall/shopping centre and then to the “after -party.” When they get there, she whispers into the female host’s ear and her nieces are directed down a passage. Her sister “closes the door behind her, leaving Amor alone in the bathroom. Alone in the world. Where is Ma? She is supposed to be here, right now, at this very moment, to help. But she went away, while I was gone.”

It seems entirely appropriate that “the secret never to be told” takes place at her mother’s funeral, where she becomes an adult in many ways and learns that life as a woman involves a secret that must always be handled discreetly and one must put a brave face on, no matter how much the pain. She learns she can no longer lean on her brother. How did that become a thing: it must be something that resonates with many women.

She never tells her brother but how can it be a secret “never to be told”, when it can leak over a car seat, a bed and is an essential part of human reproduction.

Women’s Hour on Radio 4’s had an interesting discussion on a “Puritanical revival” and why “society seems to see women’s bodily confidence as a threat.” Dr Victoria Bateman says, “It’s a particularity of women that they have to choose between their bodies and brains”. She references Greek Gods: the males were promiscuous and full of wisdom, but Athena the Goddess of Wisdom was a virgin. She declares women can be “sexy and smart,” “In every female body is a brain” and we all deserve respect.

Further Reading

Magpie (TV series) — Wikipedia

Radio 4 Women’s Hour Woman’s Hour — Women and Labour, Zarifa Ghafari, Leicester women united — BBC Sounds



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